The Rock Opera and the Yogi Temple

The Who were pure electric rock energy personified, most definitely Rock Gods in their time and after, and certainly the progenitors of the Punk movement that followed. They were an utterly fantastic band in concert; performances where you felt that at any time the guys might just levitate off the stage. The music was pushed to the very limits of what rock could acheive. As the 1960s came to a close, The Who released their masterpiece Tommy (1969). This seminal recording introduced the concept of a “rock opera,” delivering a complete story spanning the length of two albums, kicking off the 1970s movement that led to expansive, meaningful rock epics. The album made the band in America and all over the world, with its deeply spiritual message of hope, love and self-reliance.

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I was just ten years old in 1970 when I first got a cassette tape of Tommy. I must confess I didn’t understand it then; it was too deep, sometimes overtly disturbing and parts of it actually scared me. I listened to this tape on a crappy cassette player over and over again for about a year, finally putting it away forever. I probably only heard the hits “Pinball Wizard” and “I’m Free” for the rest of the decade, and since that time. As I realize now, a big part of the album was just too disturbing for me to process then.

Who_LakeShrine_72dpiNow I realize that my aversion to this work was because at that time my family was also in somewhat of a crisis. My brother Bill, who was 19 years old in 1969, was part of that generation’s “perfect storm.” He had lost his way in life to drugs, a failed attempt at college and the Vietnam War draft. He suffered from a deep seated anger, and finally found peace through Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings at the Lake Shrine, a beautiful retreat on Sunset Boulevard near the Santa Monica beaches, soon becoming a monk in the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF) church. He had been terribly troubled, and left home to find peace. I was not yet in my teens. We only saw him twice a year after that, sometimes visiting him at the SRF church in Los Angeles, or sometimes when he could come back to our house. All I could comprehend was that he went away to become a monk, and was gone. It seemed to my young mind that life was somehow so challenging and dangerous that powerful emotions could cast you out of society, changing your course eternally. Pretty heady stuff for a preteen.

Once I got older I realized that while so foreign to our Christian family, this departure from “normal” society saved my brother. The teachings of SRF were to help students gain a “direct experience of truth” as opposed to blind belief. Those messages and their practices changed Bill forever. I knew the lyrics to Tommy were plumbing the same territory, and again, at that young age I was alternately drawn in, yet somehow repelled by its powerful messages. Today I also realize that this album was and remains one of the most transformative, important records of our time.

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As I prepared to write this article, I experienced a coincidence that has to be telling me to look inside myself for some truth as well. My wife and I just purchased a historic landmark property in Santa Cruz, California. There is a “yogi temple” on the property, a decorative archway as an entry, and other structures built by a mason named Kenneth Kitchen in the 1940’s. No one over the years seemed to know what his architectural influences where – they seemed vaguely Indian or Turkish. I was somehow drawn to this property; the structures spoke to me, and I kept coming back to the idea of going through with the purchase for more than a year, despite the challenges I knew we would face. Just after we bought the property, a historical architect in the area sent us a book he was working on. Get this. Kenneth Kitchen had terrible “anger management issues” as we might say today, just like my brother did thirty years later. In Kenneth’s case, his brother took him down to the Yogananda’s temple in Los Angeles where he stayed and studied in the SRF church (yes, the same church my brother retreated to in his time of need!) When he returned to Santa Cruz he bought the property I now own, and built these structures as homage to the SRF church and the peace he attained from his studies there. Reportedly he raised goats, sold their milk, did his brick work, and tried to live a more simple, humble existence. Was I drawn in to this mysterious property and its structures because of my long lost memories of visiting my brother at the yogi temple, and the sights therein? Or was I ready to move a bit outside of the Silicon Valley, to focus a bit more internally, a bit outside the hustle of hi tech? I think so.

In a similar way, after learning of Townsend’s motivation for writing Tommy, I have been drawn back into that work. I’m not making this up people, it’s been a bit overwhelming and I’m listening now. You might know the story of Pete Townsend’s pathway to his ultimate masterpiece, which itself is informed by a spiritual teacher from India.

By the end of the 1960s, principal composer, guitarist, and vocalist Pete Townshend and the band, Roger Daltrey (vocals), John Entwistle (bass), and Keith Moon (drums) felt that it was time to develop something more substantial than the short pop songs they had been releasing. At the time, The Who was a singles band that felt they were going nowhere. The challenge was on to move past the short singles into something more substantial. Pete could write for a bigger stage, something more serious. Many believe this was the moment that saved the band. Townshend in particular knew that rock fans, and people in general were searching for answers to the woes of the day, the spiritual emptiness that accompanied sex, drugs, and gratuitous behavior. Co-manager Kit Lambert was completely behind his artist, even helping with the story’s development and other matters. Similarly, the band remained steadfastly behind their leader. “Nothing was off limits…I knew it would be okay… [and] that Pete would go on to write this kind of work,” explained Daltrey in retrospect.

Who_TheGodMan_72dpiAs Townshend relays the situation, he experienced a “bad trip” after taking the powerful hallucinogenic LSD while on an airliner from the States back to Britain, and felt he left his body. “There was nothing good about it” he said later. But it suggested to him that there was more to life than what we see, because at some point during the trip, “he was not his body.” As Townshend went looking for answers, a friend told him about spiritualist Meher Baba and the book, The God Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba with an Interpretation of his Silence and Spiritual Teaching, by C.B. Purdom. The book and its messages struck Townshend as containing answers to the questions going on in his head. “It was the simple stuff, I liked. It was, don’t worry be happy, do your best, leave the results to God. All the pieces came together and I was able to start on Tommy in earnest,” he later stated. Tommy would tell the story of a spiritual journey; “a boy that grew up in difficult circumstances, becomes a teacher, and misuse his powers, paying a price” said Townshend.

As most readers will know, the arc of the story begins with Tommy’s mother and lover killing his father right in front of him. The trauma causes the boy to become deaf, dumb and blind. Tommy suffers unbearable traumas, including child molestation, the kind of subject matter that was taboo at the time. He becomes an iconic pinball wizard, and loses his way spiritually, becoming a type of false prophet. In the end, Tommy regains his senses, and he and his followers gain spiritual enlightenment by learning to look inside of themselves for the answers to life’s mysteries. Townshend summarizes, “We are deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to our inner spirit. One life is all I know. The present life. And yet because of my ignorance, of the infinite, I cannot enjoy it. I am sad, poor, wrapped in indignity.”

Who_AutobiographyofaYogi_72dpiTownsend’s epic story of Tommy strikes me as a bit like the story of Kenneth Kitchen and of my brother Bill, and I’m feeling open to these messages. After watching the documentary about the making of Tommy, I did grab a fresh copy of the double LP and couldn’t believe I had set this one aside for so many years. It’s full of beautiful songs mostly featuring acoustic guitars, gentler, thoughtful placement of electric punctuation, creative bass leads, and the roiling drums of Keith Moon behind it all. Roger Daltry’s vocal performance and that of the work’s principal composer, is amazing, their voices still young, belying innocence yet wisdom beyond their years. In studio, then on stage, Daltrey began inhabiting the role of Tommy, delivering the impactful lyrics with an amazing power and grace. And, now, so many years after my brother gave me the book “Autobiography of a Yogi,” I think it’s time to read it.

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Coda:

Who_TicketStub76_72dpiThe Who performed most of the album in concert many times around the world, at a time when some of the largest rock festivals were staged. It was perfect timing, as the band played Monterey Pop, Woodstock and two years in a row at the Isle of Wight. South of my hometown in Los Angeles, they played Anaheim Stadium on the 14th of June 1970, just one month after releasing one of the most revered live albums of all time, Live at Leeds. Fortunately, the festivals, and some defining Who concerts have been filmed over the years and there is a wealth of documentation on the band, certainly one of the richest and varied celluloid collections of any rock band before U2, including media darlings The Rolling Stones. Arguably the best of these is the film capturing the band in full flight at the Isle of Wight.

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Live at the Isle of Wight (1970) Eagle Rock, 85 min., 1.33:1, DVD
The Who topped their Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock appearances with this amazing concert at the Isle of Wight Festival. Taking the stage early in the morning, they played several songs, then most of the Tommy album to 600,000 people.

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Tommy (1975) Sony Pictures, 111 min., 1.85:1, DVD
Love it or hate it, this Ken Russell film is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest rock films ever made. The film adaptation stars lead singer Roger Daltrey and features Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson and Elton John. The imagery in this film, which includes Ann Margaret rolling around in gushes of pork ‘n beans, no doubt fuelled my aversion to it’s strange content at the time! But hey, it’s only a movie, and only rock ‘n roll….or maybe, it does mean a bit more…

THE BOOK

For the last two years I have been working on a book with the working title of Rockin’ The City of Angels. It’s an account of my experience in the clubs, concert halls, arenas and stadiums in and around Los Angeles, bearing witness to the greatest rock concerts of our time.

Today, it is available for pre-order here: Gonzo Multimedia US
Customers pre-ordering before December 20 will receive a signed commemorative postcard, which can be used as a gift, just in time for the holiday season.

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The Pitch: At the dawn of the 70s, massive music festivals were born – Monterey, Woodstock, and others launched a decade that would feature some of the greatest musical performances of all time on rock ‘n roll stages. All across the world, rock bands had to take their shows to the next level – lighting, stagecraft, props, films, everything writ large for huge venues packed with adoring fans. The hippie oriented rock of the 60s gave way to epic concept albums packed with fantasy, fiction, and drama, the shows became mega-entertainment experiences. I saw these phenomenal shows in my home town of Los Angeles, at clubs like The Roxy, arenas like The Forum and larger sports venues such as Anaheim Stadium. The bands that excelled offered up entertainers, flamboyant stage antics, rock God presence, virtuosity, or theatrical spectacles combining rock, orchestra, ballet, opera and choir…. Their records promised “theater of the mind” while the shows brought these dreams to life….

This book will raise the curtain on these classic performances with exciting pictures from some of the top photographers of the rock era to visually tell the story of these seminal bands, as I reflect on the music, art and performance that made them into legends. The most revealing films of these and other concerts will be reviewed for each artist.

Steve Hackett Ascends

Genesis_WindProgramCover_72dpiI’ve always had an abiding affection for the band Genesis. I was the guy in high school who scrawled Genesis Rules on my notebooks, that was called Mr. Genesis when addressing yearbook entries. Part of this fascination with the band was the fact that none of us in my circle of friends got to see them before original vocalist and flutist Peter Gabriel left. There was a mystique about that era, scraps of articles about the theatrical stage craft, the costumes, and the overwhelming majesty of their concerts. All our friends who were a bit older and saw them before 1976 talked about the experience in reverential terms, as if they had gone to an evangelical event and would never be the same afterward. Finally, on March 24, 1977, after a long four years being a collector and fan, I saw the Wind & Wuthering tour at the Los Angeles Forum with drummer and second vocalist Phil Collins at the helm. It was my first opportunity to see Genesis perform in concert and it was transformative in every way.

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I’ve seen every member of the band since that time, on every tour, together or apart, and besides Peter Gabriel, guitarist Steve Hackett has been the one ex-band member to carry the music of Genesis forward for new and old audiences alike. Steve Hackett continued to compose, record and perform work exploring the same musical territory as his alma mater, while gaining new ground, continuing to keep the expressive mix of classical, blues and rock motifs alive and ever changing. Three of his first solo albums made it to record stores before the end of the 70s, with more than a dozen solo albums and collaborations following over the next several decades. In addition, Hackett’s work is surprisingly well documented via audio recordings and videos. None of the other ex-members of Genesis officially recorded and released concert films during the 70s.

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Hackett recorded his first solo album Voyage of the Acolyte just weeks after the last date on the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour in 1975 and at the same time the remaining members of Genesis were working on their first post-Gabriel recording. The album sounds quite a bit like Genesis, even sporting some material that the band had auditioned but rejected. The standout tracks are the rocking opener “Ace of Wands” and the closer – the beautiful, haunting “Shadow of the Hierophant” which ends in a doom-laden coda that would have perfectly fit his old band. Mike Rutherford and Phil Collins both play on the record, Phil lending his golden vocals to another standout track “Star of Sirius.”

Hackett’s second record released after leaving Genesis, Please Don’t Touch (1978) is something of a transitional work, with the guitarist trying out several different styles including rock, prog, and jazz. Guest vocalist Steve Walsh (Kansas) lent his powerful pipes to two songs, while Richie Havens and Randy Crawford recorded softer, lovely tones for three others. The track “Icarus Ascending” is truly one of Hackett’s most beautiful songs, graced by Havens’ gravelly, warm vocals. The title track is a standout, apparently offered to Genesis by Hackett for inclusion on the Wind & Wuthering album, but rejected. It’s a tour de force highlighting his assertive playing and ability to switch rapidly between keys and meters. Ultimately this second album is an amalgam of styles, unique in Hackett’s repertoire – the artist exploring new sounds.

On his third album, Spectral Mornings (1979) Hackett truly found that new sound, a more modern adaptation of the style he pioneered. The album features lush harmonies juxtaposed with occasional nightmarish passages, many featuring his trademark tapping technique, one that influenced many musicians to come. A long and fruitful career had truly begun.

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Steve Hackett, Spectral Mornings (2005), Gonzo Media Group, 72 min, 1.33:1

Hackett assembled a new band and launched his first tour in 1978, performing songs from his first two solo albums, along with a few new songs that would see the light of day on Spectral Mornings the next year. Performers included his brother John Hackett (flute), Pete Hicks (vocals) Dik Cadbury (bass), Nick Magnus (keyboards) and John Shearer (drums), all of who would continue with Hackett for his defining releases Spectral Mornings (1979) and Defector (1980). The films on the DVD were taken on November 8th, 1978 during the last dates on that tour. The transfer shows off footage that is crisp and clear for it’s time, with rich color saturation, well timed edits, and dynamic audio in stereo or 5.1 surround sound. Though heavily edited for German television at the time, the complete set was remastered and re-sequenced for this transfer, giving today’s collector a chance to see what the whole performance was like. It’s an amazing, rare film that belongs in any fan’s collection.

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LATEST TOUR

Steve Hackett continues to produce accomplished new music to this day, which he performs enthusiastically with his latest band. As mentioned, he’s the only former Genesis band member who includes their 1970s songs in his set list, even playing a show made up exclusively of those classics, as part of his Genesis Revisited albums and tours. This year, he has been back out on tour performing songs from his latest album Wolflight, along with gems from his solo career, and a set of Genesis classics. Dubbed literally as Acolyte to Wolflight with Genesis Revisited, the tour promised to be a career-spanning night to remember.

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We caught the show at the Warfield Theater this month for an absolutely fantastic evening of music. I don’t know how to say this without sounding hyperbolic, but I’ve seen this artist every single time he’s come to California since 1976, and this was the best sounding, most authoritative performance I’ve ever seen him deliver. The first set was composed of Hackett’s solo material, leading off with the title track from Spectral Mornings. The solo set that followed was rich and varied. The Wolflight material came across more impressively than any new material I’ve seen him perform over the years. “Out Of The Body,” the follow-up title track, and “Love Song to a Vampire” were overwhelming in their power and beauty. It’s amazing to find an artist who’s been at work this many years still crafting songs of this quality. Also notable, Hackett’s singing has grown in strength over these many years, the songs crafted to focus on multi-part harmonies to the point now where I believe he is one of our greatest singing guitarists.

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After an intermission, Hackett continued with a set of Genesis classics, all Gabriel-era, including a number of tracks not heard in ages, “Get ‘Em Out by Friday,” “Can-Utility And The Coastliners,” and, wait for it, a tear-jerking absolutely faithful rendition of “After The Ordeal,” an instrumental I always felt captured the heart of what was so inspiring about Hackett-era oft pastoral Genesis music. Nad Sylvan was in perfect voice, as usual; adding his dramatic, soulful delivery to what are, let’s be honest, very challenging songs to sing. This time out, Roine Stolt (Flower Kings, Transatlantic) played bass and additional guitars, joining stalwarts Roger King (keys), Gary O’Toole (drums, vocals), Rob Townsend (winds, percussion).

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The most memorable moments for me were the rare songs Hackett chose from his early work, “Star of Sirius” from Voyage, and “Icarus Ascending” from Touch. I don’t think words can describe how perfectly these songs were delivered, how right it was to have Nad interpreting vocals originally recorded by Phil Collins and Richie Havens in his own richly drawn theatrical style. To end this half of the show, haunting, dynamic arrangements of “Ace of Wands,” “A Tower Struck Down,” and the coda of “Shadow of the Hierophant” left the audience enraptured. And, above all, Steve Hackett was simply on fire. This performance illuminated the groundbreaking work of a career that has now spanned more than 45 years. It served to remind one and all how potent and innovative this artist’s work has been through the years, and how emotionally impactful it is to witness the songs performed live in concert. Okay, and it didn’t hurt that I got to go back stage, meet Jo, the band, and Steve himself to tell him so!

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Special thanks this week to photojournalist Matt Bolender / CC Rock for providing the photos seen herein… and to my beautiful wife for catching Steve signing my commemorative cd/dvd set from the Royal Albert Hall Genesis Revisited show. I left my camera at home that night!

Ra Ra Riot and… Tim Finn?

RaRaRiot_Independent_72dpiMy friend Tim from Seattle recommended Ra Ra Riot to me a couple of years ago. He’s one of those guys like me who still make mix tapes (okay, CDs now, soon to be Spotify lists?). We do this each year to introduce friends to our favorite music, to recommend new or old bands, and their albums or singles. Ra Ra Riot, a danceable type of “indie rock with strings” outfit hails from Syracuse, New York. They struck me immediately as an infectious upbeat act featuring talented musicians, electric and acoustic instruments and vocalist, multi-instrumentalist Wes Miles. This remarkable singer is able to hit soaring soulful notes in a high tenor register, and has a beautiful falsetto technique, clear and strong. The musicians joining him include Mathieu Santos (bass), Milo Bonacci (guitar), Rebecca Zeller (violin) and Kenny Bernard (drums).They have been together for ten years, and just released their fourth album, Need Your Light. Take a listen to opening track “Water” to catch their sound. Then try the older track Tim included on the CD mix, “Boy” from their 2011 album The Orchard. It’s definitely more like the band Capital Cities than The National!

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In concert at the Independent theater, in San Francisco, March 27, 2016, the band was in top form, clearly healthy, joyous and well rehearsed. The set list included most of the songs from the new album, and they sounded terrific live, remarkably close to the studio RaRaRiot_NeedYourLight_72dpirecordings, but with that extra presence and pumped up energy live performance can bring. On stage, a guest cello player filled in for departed member Alexandra Lawn, adding heft to the strings led by multi-instrumentalist Zeller. And, yes they played “Boy” to enthusiastic dancing and applause.

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Standing there listening to the band, I was thinking about how few indie rock and recent alt rock bands have this kind of cheerful sound. Been listening to a lot of Radiohead, Muse, The National, and others who are really moodier and darker. It had me thinking about the 1980s music scene, and the dark and light ends of the spectrum, represented most notably by the likes of The Smiths (dark), and Bow Wow Wow (light). Given Wes Miles’ voice, I was reminded most of the band Split Enz and the solo work of their founder, Tim Finn.

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RaRaRiot_SplitEnz_ConflictingCover_72dpiNew Zealand band Split Enz began very differently than it ended. They started out in 1972, featuring Phil Judd and Tim Finn as leaders of an art rock, vaudeville act, adorned in outrageous costumes and matching stage antics. Once brother Neil Finn joined in 1980, they transformed their music to focus more on a rock, pop and new wave sound. The two Finn’s and their band created some of the most adventurous music of that era, producing four fabulous albums True Colors (1980), Waiata / Corroboree (1981), Time and Tide (1982), and their masterpiece Conflicting Emotions (1983) at which point Tim left the band to start a solo career. For those down under, and for fans like me, the two brothers together were like Lennon/McCartney, such were their compositions, and the contrast in their perfectly paired voices. Neil led the group to produce one final album, appropriately titled See Ya ‘Round (1984) then going on to form the popular band Crowded House. Neil is certainly one of the greatest singer/songwriters on the planet. But for now, let’s focus on Tim who came so strongly to my mind during the Ra Ra Riot show.

TimFinn_EscapadeCover_72dpiTim Finn’s compositions and lead vocals on Conflicting Emotions and his first album Escapade (1983) are soulful and inspirational. His soaring tenor voice is one of the most dazzling instruments in the business. That first solo album, which is very light, breezy compared to his other work, was followed by the more assertive, instrumentally varied albums Big Canoe (1986, my favorite), and self-titled Tim Finn (1989) for which he hired nearly all of Peter Gabriel’s early 80s band (did you not know that, I bet not!)  Best to take a listen to the title track from Conflicting Emotions (if you don’t like the mysterious intro, meant to invoke emotional confusion, skip to minute 1:30), or the song “In A Minor Key“ or “I Only Want to Know” from Escapade. Fantastic.

 

Last time I saw Tim Finn live was also at The Independent. It was an amazing show from start to finish. This enduring talent continues to record and perform today. The Ra Ra Riot concert at the same venue ten years later, was similarly inspirational and I will be following them going forward, starting at this summer’s Outside Lands festival, where they will be on the bill with Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, and Air among many others. Highly recommended.

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David Gilmour at the Hollywood Bowl

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We just saw David Gilmour’s fantastic show at the Hollywood Bowl, and since that night I’ve been thinking, what makes a particular concert evening absolutely perfectly awesome? Obviously the performance itself, which certainly can vary from night to night, is critical. And of course the staging, sound, lighting, seats (which matter a lot more as the years go by!) matter. Even access to and from the venue counts, particularly given L.A.’s clogged roadways. And, the friends you go with, the party before or after, what you ingest, inhale or whatever you kids do these days are truly impactful.

Gilmour2016_DougArmando_72dpiThis night seeing Gilmour rock and roll at the Hollywood Bowl was in fact absolutely perfectly awesome (in the 70s we would have said, “bitchin!”) The lighting and sound was fantastic, the film projections, which were programmed to the contours of the stage’s bowl shaped awning, were amazing. And we had close up seats and the pleasure of attending with great company, photojournalist Armando Gallo and his wife Cheryl, which will forever be a special memory. Yes, bitchin it was.

Gilmour2016_Echo_72dpiLast October, we saw nearly the exact same Gilmour show on the same Rattle That Lock tour at the Royal Albert Hall in London, most definitely another of the greatest venues on the planet. While it was a lovely evening featuring the exact same set list, a nearly equal number of selections from Gilmour’s solo and Floyd output, all played beautifully, something felt missing – there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm from Gilmour and the band – I think it was an off night. Also the location of our seats, which were up where the air was quite thin, afforded us great overhead views (not much hair left on any of the guys), but not the kind of viewing experience you get on the floor, which is our preferred location. In this case, as the tickets were so in demand, we felt lucky to have nabbed seats at all. At the Hollywood Bowl, our seats were nearly front and center!

About the set list, to be specific, we expected this legendary guitarist to include songs from the Floyd, and there were quite a number of these in the mix, 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 encores “Time/Breathe” and “Comfortably Numb” from their early catalog. These were staples of FM radio in the 1970s and we reveled in their psychedelic, cautionary tones. From later years, by the time when we all had damn jobs, “Sorrow” from A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and “High Hopes/Coming Back to Life” from The Division Bell, rounded out the show.

During the encore, “Time/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.

…by the way, did you really know that lyric, the scribbled lines? Uh …no

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Gilmour has built a long if not prolific solo career now, and it’s true, 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 his last solo outing. 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 in concert. The first three tracks from the album opened the show, followed later by four additional songs “A Boat Lies Waiting,” “In Any Tongue,” “The Girl in the Yellow Dress (playful, fun),” and “Today.” Standout track “The Blue” from On An Island was gorgeous, a mellow lullaby played with only the good notes (as Jack Black said in The Holiday…. yes, I just referenced a romcom!). On the whole, a nicely drawn set list of solo and Floyd gems.

Gilmour2016_Girl_72dpiAs mentioned, the films were amazing once again. Gilmour’s production team must be using some of the same tech Waters deployed on the most recent, awe-inspiring tour of The Wall. A few classic Floyd videos were presented onscreen, most notably the surreal, psychedelic movie projected during ”Shine on you Crazy Diamond.” Of the new films, “The Girl In The Yellow Dress” directed by David Madden, was creatively evocative, itself a work of animated art.

Gilmour2016_Manzara_72dpiOh, and the music. On this night, Gilmour seemed on fire, grinding out his brand of searing guitar solos gracefully, matching his alternately gravelly and silky smooth voice. 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. Bryan Chambers and Louise Clare Marshall covered backing vocals.

At the RAH I said we witnessed 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. But this time, he absolutely owned the stage, and the moment, blowing away this crowd of Angelinos, young and old alike. And please, if this show comes anywhere near you, get yourself a ticket, get off the couch, and run, run, run like hell to the venue, before the time is gone, and the song over (sorry, just sayin’, it was quite a stretch better than another episode of CSI). Go for it.

Happy The Man

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Rick Kennell

While working on my upcoming book on rock concerts and films of the 1970’s, I’m thinking about how to organize the chapters. A recent idea is to break down the list of bands into categories, like “Rock Gods,” “Entertainers,” “Shaman,” and a few others. I left a chapter open for Happy The Man, and am thinking that of all the types of bands we loved in that decade, they belong most firmly in the category of “Virtuosos.” I discovered Happy The Man quite by accident, as an epic composition from their debut album “Mr. Mirror’s Reflections On Dreams” was played on a local radio station in San Luis Obispo just before a feature on the band Camel. My college roommates and I had just become fans of Camel, and planned a trip to the Roxy theater in Los Angeles to see them for the first time supporting the album Breathless (1978). Little did we know we would not be hearing their amazingly talented keyboardist Pete Bardens at that show, as he sadly left the band prior to the tour. Even more surprising was when Camel’s follow-up I Can See Your House From Here (1979) included compositions and keyboards from Happy The Man alumni, Kit Watkins, the “slow-hand” of the bending synth lead (yes, that’s a Clapton reference!). With all this kismet, my friends and I became avid fans of these guys and their brand of complex polyrhythmic progressive rock.

HTM_DebutCover_72dpiWhat we soon learned is that Happy The Man was the most ambitious American progressive rock band on record. Founded by guitarist Stanley Whitaker and bassist Rick Kennell in the early 70s, the band worked in studio and on stage for five years, eventually gelling as an ensemble by the mid 70s with Kit Watkins (keyboards, flute), Frank Wyatt (vocals, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and drummer Mike Beck. This lineup was signed to the Arista label after they arranged a showcase in New York to see the band – including label president Clive Davis – in the summer of 1976. At that point, the group went into the studio to record their first self-titled album Happy The Man, released in August 1977.

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The band was enamored with the engineering and production on Birds of Fire (1973) by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and when Arista asked them to submit a three producer “wish list” it read: 1. Ken Scott, 2. Ken Scott, and 3. Ken Scott. Ken was known for work with artists such as Jeff Beck, Supertramp, Elton John, David Bowie and the Beatles. In a mix-up that benefited the band, their demos were sent to the west coast Arista office in the east-to-west coast “pouch.” Ken went over to Arista expecting to pick up another project he was considering, but the HTM Demos were handed to him instead. He loved the band and came to Washington D.C. for a showcase at the Cellar Door a week or two later. As he already had time on hold at A&M Studios for another project, everything came together very quickly. The result is a debut album that is striking in its beauty and complexity – bridging jazz, classic and symphonic rock to produce a unique sonic experience. It’s been justly hailed by critics over the years, most recently making the top 50 list of “The Greatest Progressive Rock Albums of all Time” at Rolling Stone magazine. The band toured around the east coast of the U.S. with their largest show supporting Hot Tuna for more than 10,000 festival goers in Long Island, New York.

HTM_CraftHandsCover_72dpiTheir second album Crafty Hands (1978) was similarly enthralling and featured new drummer Ron Riddle. It kicks off with the vaguely sinister “Service With A Smile,” and features arguably the best concise introduction to the band. Ron was an early original member of The Cars and this tune was written in tandem with their keyboard player Greg Hawkes. Another standout track “I Forgot To Push It,” features staccato interplay, hand claps, and an enticing example of smoking-hot dual leads on guitar and synth. Bassist Rick Kennell recalls, “The name came when the band was attempting to record an early demo of the song, and when the playing ended, Kit proclaimed I forgot to push it! meaning he did not push the record button. It went on to become a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry for the band when Arista couldn’t really figure out how to market, promote or push the band.”

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It’s tragic and short sighted that Arista declined to release and distribute their 3rd effort, which was recorded with the fantastic French drummer Coco Roussel, leading to their breakup. The group never had the label’s support to tour west of the Mississippi; much less the U.K. and Europe. Kennell added, “In 1979, with the advent of the disco and punk movements, and bands like Talking Heads becoming popular, the suits at Arista had a three martini lunch – and decided to drop every progressive act on the label – including our band, Phil Collin’s Brand X, Aldo Nova and Stomu Yamashta’s Go.”

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Stanley Whitaker

Listening through their entire catalog, which was augmented in the 1980’s with releases of their earlier work, their 3rd effort, and a live concert recording, it’s hard to describe the emotional impact this band’s adventurous music can have on attentive listeners. Passages of dreamy atmospheric beauty mix with challenging, assertive, serpentine adventures. For the uninitiated, take a listen to the opener on their debut “Starborne,” which invokes a sonic trip to the stars. Brace yourself then for the amazing interlocking leads on “Stumpy Meets The Firecracker in Stencil Forest.”

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Frank Wyatt

Now try to compare these sounds to any band you’ve ever heard – very difficult indeed. I’ve heard a few tracks from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa that could be referenced, but this band was clearly onto something utterly unique and exceptional. The interplay between Watkin’s keys, Whitaker’s guitars, and Wyatt’s keys and winds backed by Kennell’s exquisite bass leads and Beck/Riddle’s percussion – demonstrate a level of musical competence that places this rare band above most of their contemporaries.

The group reunited in the year 2000 with new keyboardist David Rosenthal replacing Kit Watkins for a show at Nearfest followed later by release of The Muse Awakens (2004). Though this was a very worthy new start for the band, no additional work has been released since under this original moniker. However band members are always busy, working together on albums under the names Oblivion Sun and Pedal Giant Animals. Stan Whitaker also lent his chops to the short-lived ensemble Ten Jinn. Anyone captured by their work would be well served by picking up any of these more recent albums.

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Kit Watkins

Also notable is the long solo career of keyboard and winds player Kit Watkins. After working with Camel, his solo recordings ranged from songs that invoke the allegro jams of his former band, to lighter jazz-influenced collections like the fabulous album In Time, on which he worked again with drummer Coco Roussel. In addition, Kit has recorded and released more than two-dozen peaceful, ambient albums and occasionally darker works beginning with Azure (1989). Hard to pick favorites from so many wonderful albums, but interested listeners might start with Sunstruck (1990) and Beauty Drifting (1996). Check for these recordings on CD Baby.

ON FILM

HTM_LiveCover_72dpiThough Happy The Man eventually released an exciting, at times sonically startling live album on CD, Live (1978), and performed more than four-dozen concerts during the 70s in New England, there is almost no known film of the band playing in concert. Dedicated fans can access a short documentary from the 1970s and two songs performed live at their Nearfest reunion show here.

In addition, Kit can be seen playing live on the film The Gathering (2005) in his most contemplative mode, ala Beauty Drifting, performing solo works during a rare one-man concert. All of these releases are recommended for any fan or interested collector.