Category Archives: Music Review

Bad Company Lives Live!

badcompanylive_cover_72dpiBad Company is one of the most important rock bands of the 1970s. They topped a hard rock core with silky smooth yet gritty production values, hooks galore, and pedigree in each musician. They are a band I had to, regrettably leave out of my upcoming book Rockin’ the City of Angels. The omission is due in large part to a few issues – most importantly that the book is a celebration of the outstanding concerts of the ‘70s including classic rock and prog bands, and I did not get to see them in concert until recently. I could not find any footage nor official live albums of the band during that decade. That last excuse has just been remedied with the release of an outstanding double-CD set of Bad Company Live in concert 1977 and 1979.

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The release is exceptional in every important way. The first set, recorded in 1977 at The Summit, Houston Texas, May 23, 1977 captures the band tearing through 15 tracks over 76 minutes, starting off with the title track from that year’s album Burnin’ Sky (1977) and ending with the mega-hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” Label mates Led Zeppelin played the same venue just two days earlier, and this show similarly brims with crackling intensity. The second set is just two minutes longer with the same number tracks, taken from the Empire Pool, Wembley Arena in London March 9, 1979, where they did three shows to 12,000 fans each night, just a week before the release of Desolation Angels (1979) considered by most to be their last strong album. The set list begins with the title track of their debut, Bad Company (1974), and ends with another hit “Can’t Get Enough.” In between quite a number of the “then new” tracks are included, most notably “Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy.” In addition a cover of the Hendrix breakout hit “Hey Joe” was taken from the Capital Center, Washington DC, also in ’79.

Overall, the sets are edited so that there are only two tunes repeated between the 1977 to 1979 shows – just “Shooting Star” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” appear on both discs, smartly leaving buyers with a generous helping of 28 songs performed live. Most importantly, these sets sound fantastic. There are no overdubs made to either show, a fact noted on the promo sticker. Fans of the band know how unnecessary sonic tinkering would have been, as the original four-piece Bad Company lineup was known as a non-nonsense powerhouse in concert. My book designer Tilman Reitzle saw the show in ’79 and told me the band was the most rehearsed, professional group he had ever seen, able to be precise while still keeping the energy and excitement at the highest level. Between-song chatter was kept to a minimum, and you can now hear the remarkable economy and precision of their delivery on this set. It comes from the rock-steady beat of drummer Simon Kirke (ex-Free), to the baddest fretless bass from Boz Burrell (coming off a stint with King Crimson), amped guitar riffs from Mick Ralphs (ex-Mott The Hoople), and pitch perfect vocals from Paul Rogers (also ex-Free), certainly one of the genre’s most talented, dependable vocalists, not to mention his capable chops on piano and guitar, which helped to round out the band’s sound.

The booklet, authored by David Clayton is informative, if a bit shy on photos of the guys on stage and off. Having said that, the shots that are included, by Brannon Tommey, Bruce Kessler, Alan Perry, and Aubrey Powell are fantastic. There are also snaps of memorabilia – mostly ads for the shows, tickets and backstage passes. The booklet includes a background with lots of information about their progress in studio and the extensive, sometimes punishing touring schedule. Clayton puzzles as to how these tapes remained untouched in the vault for 40 years, something we can all agree on. He also provides this, a favorite quote about the band: “guys wanted to be them and girls wanted to be with them.”

It’s said that manager Peter Grant’s belief that live audio and film recordings took away from the impetus to see his bands live contributed to the unavailability of these artifacts from Bad Company. Grant also managed Led Zeppelin who released limited and rather poor live audio and filmed material during the decade, something that has also been rectified in years since. Fans can now rejoice that at least on the audio front this has been corrected with this superb new CD release. Add it to your collection, and hang on for video that hopefully one day will follow…

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Paul Rogers, still rockin’ today

p.s.

Best videos I’ve located from the 1970s are almost exclusively from television appearances:

Feel Like Makin’ Love:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeZqjZ_kvLY

Can’t Get Enough:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7p9mzYB–uI

 

 

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.

 

 

Billy Sherwood and Citizen

BillySherwood_CitizenCover_72dpiBilly Sherwood’s inventive new concept album Citizen is available now. Each of 11 songs follows a central character, “the citizen” who is reincarnated into different periods in history, experiencing the time he’s inhabiting, whether it be as a WWI soldier, an American Indian on the trail of tears, or a stock broker during the market crash of 1929. It’s a vehicle that allows Billy to delve into many emotions with matching soundscapes, leading the listener to experience the triumphs and tragedies of man’s history. Billy plays almost all instruments on the album including bass and drums on every track but the opener “The Citizen,” which contains the last recording from Yes bass player and long time Sherwood collaborator Chris Squire. Billy also adds guitars and keyboards on many tracks, joined by an A-list of collaborators like Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, Patrick Moraz, Geoff Downes, Steve Morse, Jon Davison, Alan Parsons and more. I talked to Billy this week about the new album, and his role with Yes going forward.

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Citizen has so many guest musicians – how much of that was done in person – what was your process for getting it all on record?

Well, file-share is a big part of the world we live in. If we tried to pull together a record like this back in the day it would be a very, very expensive process, traveling around, shuffling tapes. The way we do it now is doable. I recorded Jon Davison in my house, and I went to Alan Parsons’ studio to record his vocal for “Empire.” For the track “The Citizen,” which features Chris Squire on bass, we recorded at a Holiday Inn near his home. Since I carry my mobile recording studio with me on the road, I just set up in the hotel and turned it into my studio for the day, and he did a great job.

The thing about working with artists on this level, is they know exactly what to do – I don’t need to be sitting over their shoulder saying “it’s a B-flat!” they can figure that out on their own. I really just lay out the format of the songs and tell each musician to feel free, to add anything else they want to interpret to the song, to add their stamp on the piece in any way they think improves the song. I’m always thrilled when I get these files back because they are consistently great. I sit there smiling to myself when I listen to it all; it’s a blessing to have these kinds of players on my record.

When you listen to the song “The Great Depression,” it wouldn’t be that song without Rick Wakeman adding that great piano work. He enhanced that melancholy feeling to the whole thing. I said to Rick when I sent the file, “this is about a guy who’s at the end of his rope, this citizen is reincarnated as an investment banker from the Great Depression and he’s lost it all and is about to take his own life.” It made me sad to sing that song; even though it’s a fictional character, I was feeling for that guy. That’s something about music that’s important, to evoke those emotions from the listener. The track is very melancholy and instead of a synth solo, Rick’s piano piece was exactly what I was looking for.

Everyone on the record delivered that same quality and expertise, their performances accentuated the lyrical content. These guys have been doing it for so long, they’re not playing it for their ego; they’re playing for the song. And that’s what music is all about – to make the song shine and there are many components that do that. A guitar player coming in and shredding over the top of something to show his chops is not what it’s always about – it’s about lending the right notes and vibes to the track. They know exactly what to do.

“Trail of Tears” is another standout track, and features Patrick Moraz on keyboards

Watch the video for Trail of Tears on Youtube

He played some amazing melodies that lent themselves to the emotion of the song. When I saw him in Florida recently he was raving about what the lyrics meant to him and how he loved being involved. The lyrics are kind of heavy, talking about the trials and tribulations of the American Indians and what they went through at that time, and it moved him – he was expressing that to me and so translated those emotions into his work.

I wanted the listener to be able to put on headphones with eyes closed, to have a sense of becoming the citizen, in that moment, and to be transported into that time period and feel that emotion and trepidation, or joy or whatever the case may be. I’m happy with the way it came out in that regard. It’s a concept that could be taken further with more records. There are so many amazing moments in world history. With an album you only have so much time to speak and there is a lot more that could be said with this character. I tried to key into these monumental moments in history that were not only profound for the Citizen character, but for all of us. For this record I chose what I thought would be interesting subjects and historical facts. In one way it is complete fiction, in the other it is hardcore reality. For instance when you get to “Age of the Atom” it is kind of frightening and scary because we’re talking about nuclear technology and weapons and who’s got them, particularly in light of current events.

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Do you foresee touring for this album, and if so who would be in the band?

We are going to tour it, and I’ve got management looking at gigs now. Yes has become a priority in my life, which it always has been. Whenever they call I answer. I’ve always been there for the guys – it has come in and out of my life so many times. Chris wanted me to take his position in the band and so did the other members. But there is time still to do other things, and my other priority is to get Citizen on the road. I’ve built a core band already. I will be playing bass and lead vocals. I will be joined by Scott Conner from my band Circa on drums, John Thomas from the band XNA, a band I produced, on guitars, Scott Walton who appeared as an auxiliary keyboard player on the Circa Live and Conspiracy releases. The core of the band will be the four of us, and we plan to have guests playing with us as well – there’s nothing confirmed yet but I’ve spoken to several musicians from the album, and they’ve all mentioned their desire to participate, schedules permitting. That’s the plan.

I want to say “thank you” to the fans, thanks for supporting the project. I can’t wait to get out there on stage – please come see it live!

Here’s one patron who will make it a point to get to one of these shows. Last week I returned from Cruise to the Edge (CTTE), the rock festival, where Billy performed on bass and vocals, stepping in for Chris Squire who passed on earlier this year. It was a remarkable show, and Billy did Chris proud, replicating his trademark sound while still interpreting the songs anew. We talked about the Yes tours for a few minutes.

Billy, the CTTE Set list included “Soon,” a surprise track that sounded amazing. What have you experienced or learned playing and singing with Yes on this tour?

In all my other bands I’m the lead singer, so approaching the background vocals for me is actually easier to do. That said it’s also tricky, there is a lot of dexterity required for playing while singing. Delivering those crazy bass lines and singing simultaneously is a challenge. One example would be “Tempus Fugit.” You sort of have to detach the two sides of your mind and let one go one way and one go the other. If I really stop and look down at what I’m playing it confuses me so I try not to look at the fret board! That’s something I always admired about Chris – how fluid and easy he made that look, but it is tricky. And then there are the bass pedals to put into the equation!

“Soon” is a beautiful piece of music from Relayer. It is so cool the way Chris composed that bass part. As there are no drums, the tempo is derived from the bass part. When I was starting to play bass around age 16 I always tried to play to the hardest stuff I could find. “Gates of Delirium” from Relayer is an example, a bear of a track to learn. The bass line is intense and relentless. I love that record, used to play to that record every day to get my chops up.

Will the Drama/Fragile tour make it to the US?

I hope so because it’s a lot to learn! I’m confident that we will be bringing it to the states next year. There are plans to do a lot more touring around the world. Yes is my passion and priority and I look forward to the future of Yes.

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Photo Credits:

Michi Sherwood
Doug Harr, Diego Spade Productions, Inc.

Citizen Credits

1: The Citizen
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Drums
Chris Squire Bass
Tony Kaye Keyboards & Hammond Organ

2: Man & The Machine
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
Steve Hackett Guitar

3: Just Galileo And Me
Colin Moulding Lead Vocals
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Harmonica / Bass / Drums

4: No Mans Land
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
Steve Morse Guitar

5: The Great Depression
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Rick Wakeman Keyboards & Grand Piano

6: Empire
Alan Parsons Lead & Backing Vocals
Jerry Goodman Violins
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Bass / Drums

7: Age Of The Atom
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Geoff Downes Keyboards

8: Trail Of Tears
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Patrick Moraz Keyboards

9: Escape Velocity
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Guitars / Bass / Drums
Jordan Rudess Keyboards

10: A Theory All it’s Own
Billy Sherwood Vocals / Keyboards / Bass / Drums
John Wesley Guitar

11: Written In The Centuries
Jon Davison Lead Vocals
Billy Sherwood Backing Vocals / Keyboards / Guitars / Bass / Drums

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Yes: War and Peace

Yes Relayer CoverThe Yes album Relayer, one of the band’s most adventurous and enduring records, was originally released in 1974. It is a progressive rock masterpiece that includes elements of jazz-fusion, and a looser feel, thanks in great part to keyboard player Patrick Moraz, and the sessions that were part of its writing. The album is a work of art, in its story telling, prose, virtuosic playing and beautiful cover art by Roger Dean. Its release was followed by two tours of North America, England and Europe, each segment utilizing amazing stage sets designed and built by Martyn Dean, resulting in the most impressive theatrical performances of their careers. Forty years after it’s release, Steven Wilson remastered the album from its original multitrack tapes in stereo and 5.1 sound, producing what is now the definitive release on CD and Blue-ray.

THE ALBUM

Relayer’s centerpiece is “The Gates of Delirium” which occupies side one of the vinyl album. Written during the unending turmoil of the Vietnam War, and the August 1974 resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon, it weaves a tale about the evils of war and it’s aftermath, inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace. As Anderson described the multi-part suite “There’s a prelude, a charge, a victory tune, and peace at the end, with hope for the future.” It contains some of the most assured and aggressive instrumentals and vocals of the band’s catalog. The music perfectly illuminates the central story and it’s lyrics. Consider the battle scene instrumental, complete with the sound of battle cries and clanging metal, the band creating the sometimes abrasive tones of naked aggression – following the lyric:

The fist will run
Grasp metal to gun
The Spirit sings in crashing tones we gain the battle drum
Our cries will shrill the air will moan and crash into the dawn

This cacophony fades into the peaceful finale “Soon,” one of the most beautiful songs Yes composed and an enduring fan favorite. Just as with the story of war before it, “Soon”, perfectly matches music to hopeful prose emerging from the shadows of battle. Moraz lays down a backdrop of peaceful organ and Mellotron. Steve Howe leads with atmospheric pedal-steel and acoustic guitars, and Jon Anderson delivers one of his most touching yet powerful lead vocals, a reflection of his utopian philosophy:

Soon Oh soon the light
Ours to shape for all time, ours the right
The sun will lead us
Our reason to be here

“The Gates of Delirium” is a prime example of Yes’s large-scale songs that are designed to take listeners on a journey, to take them to a place far removed from their beginnings. The song begins with a state of turmoil, the onset of war and reaches its climax in the middle with a musical depiction of war. A state of peace is attained after the battle, bringing the listener into a world free from the fetters of time and space. The beginning of the piece has a strong rhythmic force, which propels the music forward. The ending has an absence of beat and pulse, and produces a feeling of timelessness, quietude, and contemplation – a hymn-like atmosphere. While Tchaikovsky and Mahler give their final slow movements tragic overtones, Yes’s slow movements portray hope and transcendence rather than tragedy. It is music for the theater in our minds.

The second side of the original LP contains two tracks that are masterful works in their own right. In particular, the jazz fusion influence brought by Moraz is demonstrated in “Sound Chaser” featuring his impossibly fast leads on the Fender Rhodes keyboard backed by similarly frenetic drum and bass runs – some of the best synergy between Chris Squire and Alan White on record. The frenetic middle instrumental passes between key and meter with vocal punctuations (cha cha cha, cha cha!). This music rewards only the attentive listener. The more gentle, melodic “To Be Over” makes a perfect closer for this brilliant album.

Yes Relayer CD Cover 72dpi

The cover art for Relayer is one of Roger Dean’s most beautiful paintings. I felt fortunate to see this finely detailed work up close at a San Francisco Art Exchange showing in 2009, prior to seeing a Yes and Asia gig in the city. Roger once described the painting: “Relayer was really a pencil drawing –I’ve said it jokingly but it was almost painted with dirty water- its got so little color in it. It wasn’t a conscious intention to do a contrast– it was just how that should have been – just the right way to do it – to this day it’s definitely one of my top 3 favorites.” A poem by Donald Lehmkuhl sets the tone for Jon’s lyrics and Roger’s cover art; it begins with the line, “Snakes are coiled upon the granite.” As rendered, the artwork imagines an otherworldly, nearly colorless historical setting for “Gates” creating the perfect packaging to match the musical genius inside.

Yes Relayer SFAE Show
Alan White chats with Doug Harr at SFAE

THE 2014 STEVEN WILSON REMASTER

As to the latest remastering, the CD and Blue-ray DVD present the best sounding versions of the albums I’ve heard to date. In an interesting turn of events, the battle sound effects from the original mix of “Gates” are not included on the remastered versions of that track as they were not found on the multitrack master tapes. Not to worry, as original album versions, including two with the needle drop are included on the DVD. In addition we get single edits of “Soon” and “Sound Chaser” along with a studio run through of each track. It’s nice to have the clean Blu-ray stereo pressing of “Sound Chaser” live from Cobo “Hall” (an arena in Detroit, Michigan) in 1976, though it was previously available on The Word Is Live, and would have been more valuable had it been paired with “Gates” (which appeared on YesShows) and a version of “To Be Over” from the prior year. It would in fact have been a notch better if an alternate live performance of the entire album was included, and even more interesting if any live video had been added. Having said that this now definitive set contains a wealth of audio to consume and appreciate.

Yes Relayer Booklet 72dpi

TOURS AND LIVE RECORDINGS

As to live video, the only complete film from this period is a valuable if flawed document of the Relayer tour at Queen’s Park, London from May 10, 1975. The picture is excellent considering the era, though because it’s the early leg of the tour, and the band played during daylight, the staging effects are poorly captured. Unfortunately, the sound is poor during the first segment of the show, and never completely recovers. At some date we may see unearthed footage from later segments of this tour, which eventually ended with the most impressive staging of the band’s history. For now it is the most important footage of this incarnation of Yes.

The staging by Roger and Martyn Dean represented a massive undertaking for the ensemble during the long tour. If we include the 1976 “solo albums” leg of the journey, there were almost 150 performances between November 1974 to late August 1976. The staging went through three iterations – beginning with the Tales set, followed by a set dubbed “Barnacles” for the second U.S. visit between June and July of 1975. A subsequent tour with the same lineup but no new Yes album to support came in May of 1976. Dubbed the “solo albums” tour, this is still referred to by most as part of the Relayer tour, though “To Be Over” had been dropped from the set list to make way for a few alternate and solo tracks. Most importantly, the break left time for Martyn Dean to conceive of his most stunning staging yet, the “Crab Nebula.”

Yes Relayer Ticket 1976The “Crab Nebula” was a three-headed creation that towered over the band, fit out with spotlights, and built to emerge and vanish during the show, because as Martyn noted “Anything that’s onstage for three hours becomes boring if you can’t make it vanish.” Ten people worked for three months on the “Crab Nebula” structure, made with wood, aluminum, foam, plaster and varnish, resulting in a transportable, sturdy construction that kept it intact and functional through the summer tour of stadiums and coliseums, which ended in August of 1976. This was part of Martyn’s work with Yes over a seven-year period, when he and his team produced increasingly sophisticated and impressive staging. Along with the cloth backdrop designed by Roger and made by Felicity Youlette, it represented scenery and craft raised to the level of artful theater.

Music, lyrics, poetry and art come together on Relayer, creating a sumptuous package. Considered along with its legendary performances, this is one of the pinnacles of 1970’s era progressive and classic rock.

More to come on this fantastic album, its long tour, and its place as one of the most theatrical works of the progressive era, when I finish my next book! In the meantime, collect these discs and put on your headphones…

Circuline Emerge

CIRCULINE_RETURN_CD_COVER_72dpiCirculine was founded in 2014 by Andrew Colyer (keyboards, vocals), Bill Shannon (guitars, vocals), and Darin Brannon (drums, percussion). Each had played with groups that covered progressive and classic rock masters along with original material. For this new band the desire was to make a concerted go of it – to write and record new original material to bring to the stage.  Lead vocalists Billy Spillane and Natalie Brown joined the group, having performed countless times as singers, actors, dancers, and rock musicians. Paul Ranieri plays bass along with Matt Dorsey on a handful of tracks as well. The band are about to release their debut album, and are booked for a series of concerts this spring.

Circuline-PromoPhoto#1Circuline’s debut album is filled with modern progressive rock gems. Its sound is dramatic and technically advanced, yet accessible and melodic. The balance of dramatic dark and light tones that can be so difficult to achieve seems to come easy for this outfit. Tracks like the opener, “Return” shine with tight vocal harmonies, well-tuned toms, and bass, grand piano, and clean synth leads. Follow up “Nebulae” draws the listener in with it’s ambient intro building to a tight fusion style guitar lead, all ending in the sound of crashing thunder and the sound of rain fading away. “Imperfect” shines with beautiful melody followed by “Fallout Shelter” which sports a monster sized dissonant jam on guitar, atop crashing drums, sounding as frightening as the title implies. Instant favorite “Silence Revealed” (click here for YouTube audio) closes the album with a compelling summary of all that comes before, ending a journey that is challenging and appealing.

Circuline_AndrewI talked to Andrew Colyer one of the founders of the band and it’s keyboard player and backing vocalist. Andrew came to the world of progressive music a bit later in life than some, which affords him a balance of pop and prog influences. I started by asking him about these influential bands, and wanted him to elaborate just a bit about artists as disparate as Happy The Man, and Ambrosia:

Andrew: My favorite keyboard players include the greats: Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Tony Banks, Jan Hammer, Jordan Rudess, Chick Corea, Lyle Mays, Herbie Hancock, Bruce Hornsby, Keith Jarrett but Eddie Jobson is my favorite. I’ve seen Eddie live several times –when they played on CTTE in 2013, everyone was stunned into silence. At the end of the show, when people are usually chit chatting, nobody was saying a word – they were so awesome you couldn’t speak. As far as I’m concerned, Eddie is the man to beat.

Jan Hammer was the first guy to use the pitch bend wheel to really make the keyboard sound expressive, like a guitar player. I think it was Jeff Beck who said his favorite guitar player is Jan Hammer.

Kit Watkins was a phenomenal synth player, who worked with Frank Wyatt and Stanley Whitaker in Happy The Man. Frank and Stan went on to form Oblivion Sun. What I really like best in this music are Frank’s chord changes – it all starts with the chords and song for Frank, and he and Stan come up with these odd rhythms. I know Frank, am in contact with the band and may record and play with them live in the future.

I liked Ambrosia in the 70s and they were on the first Cruise To The Edge. Before that show, I didn’t know they had those progressive origins. I grew up listening to Kasey Casem’s top 40 and movie soundtracks and so in the late 70s “Biggest Part of Me” and those soft rock hits caught my ear with their 5 part vocal harmonies, interesting chord changes – today they still sound terrific – just like on the record.

Circuline_live2Doug: You mentioned the focus Circuline also takes with vocals and harmonies, making space within the compositions for vocals to shine.

Andrew: That was one of Darin’s rules. Billy Natalie and I met before this band was formed and both of them are great singers – the three of us together have a really nice sound. And Bill (guitar) also sings so we can do 4 part harmonies. For this band we definitely want to feature the vocals – I think it makes the music more accessible. It doesn’t matter how great the music is – if you don’t have great vocalists I don’t believe people are going to come back again to see a band. You can do enough marketing to get people to come out and see a band once, and you want that reaction where they want to come back, and bring their friends with them. For us to have the caliber of vocalists in Billy and Natalie and not feature them would be a wasted opportunity. We’ve already been labeled “crossover” prog, which is good with us, because we would like to be more accessible, more viable as an ongoing band. We know that when you see an artist like Steven Wilson or Sound of Contact you can relate to the music and come away ready for more.

Circuline_live3Doug: When it comes to performing these songs live, we’ve discussed the theatricality of a concert – the range between simply a powerful emotive presentation and costumes, staging and lights – how do you approach your live shows?

Andrew: Besides Billy fronting No Quarter for 6-7 years he has also performed all over the world as an actor and dancer. Natalie had a 30-year career as an actor – she had the lead in Evita twice – that was her full time job. First, our dress is different – we have a rule – no t-shirts, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. It s a personal thing – we believe that if we are going to ask somebody to leave their home, and pay money to see us we should at least try to look good. None of us care for the “rock n roll” thing where the band looks like they haven’t had a shower for a week, and are wearing ripped up t-shirts and jeans. We are going to try to look like we belong on stage. Second, some of the theatricality has to do with the way Billy and Natalie present the music, either their facial expressions or gestures while singing – they have the ability to play off each other while playing to the audience at the same time. Because they are trained they have a way of doing that and make it part of the performance. It’s just who they are.

In the 70s having the music being progressive was new enough – in todays world, people see things like Katy Perry and the Super Bowl halftime shows, Taylor Swift with her huge stage sets, Billy Joel who has a big rotating stage, lights, and show – what people can see live or on YouTube has them used to getting some kind of visuals with the music – something happening on stage. Some musicians can still come out and stand still, just playing their instruments. We are looking to include some movement, and drama to benefit us, and our audience.

Circuline_live1Doug: By the way, what happened to your Trumpet?

Andrew: For 10 years, I played in Jr. High, High School and college in multiple bands and there is just no time to keep up with my horn, but I really miss playing. The big band stuff is really fun. People make fun of “Sussudio” by Phil Collins, but listen to those horn lines! Maybe I can incorporate it playing the horn my right hand, and keys with my left. Pat Metheny did a long composition live and the trumpet player had a mic, and a bunch of guitar effects pedals – reverb, delay – he could do a bunch of great effects. It would be great to incorporate an approach like that in the future.

Doug: The keys sound congruous throughout the record – lots of patches within a tight family of sounds. Bill stretches out on Fallout Shelter with that dissonant guitar passage. It comes just after “Imperfect.” Was there a plan to its placement on the record?

Andrew: I tried to use different keyboard patches on every song – and Bill was conscious of his tone – we tried to blend these together. We are very particular about our parts, and dial things up and back in service of the song.

Imperfect was “the pretty song” on the record. Bill and I had the idea in the studio and we recorded it and forgot about it for about 3 months. Near the end of the recording we thought, “lets go back to that ballad we were working on.” We played it back and decided to include it – no mixing, no overdubs – the performances were flawed – I have plenty glitches and notes, but we did not want to go back and redo it – we captured a moment, and we thought, let’s put it on the record and call it “Imperfect.” For Fallout Shelter the working title was “Brand X Jam” – Darin gets to do his Billy Cobham drum solo – so it was a jam we recorded at The Cave (recording studio) and we kept Bill’s original guitar track as the basis. Later I wrote the big kind of epic chords and the synth part ending. We put “Fallout Shelter,” the most demented song, after “Imperfect,” the prettiest one!

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Circuline-PromoPhoto#2Circuline feature the new album in concert on April 24-26, on a double-bill with Glass Hammer, and are filming and recording the show for DVD at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, New York. Additional gigs with Glass Hammer include the New Jersey ProgHouse, and Orion Studios in Baltimore. They also have three nights in May for the Sonic Voyage Festival with a great lineup of bands, and are looking to start their second album this summer. Circuline will also record additional videos, which are to include short videos for Internet TV, some of which will be videos of their social time together. Next year they are planning to get into some of the summer festivals, which book at the beginning of the year. Watch for these events from this new and engaging progressive rock band!