Tag Archives: Blues

Zucchero Sweetens the Palace

Zucchero_blackcatusacanadaMy wife and I were very fortunate last weekend to attend the San Francisco stop on the latest tour of Italian superstar Adelmo “Zucchero” Fornaciari. This man known simply as “Zucchero” who reportedly first picked up a guitar the year I graduated high school in 1978 somehow escaped our attention until the turn of the century, when we travelled to Sienna Italy and were surrounded by posters of his then new tour, supporting the album Shake (2001). We knew of Italian progressive rockers Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) and in a sort of happy coincidence were stopping in Pennsylvania on the way home from Italy to see a rare appearance by that band at a prog music festival. But we also picked up Zucchero’s decidedly not-prog record, learning that it was recorded near our Zucchero_Shakehome in Sausalito, then back in Italy, finally mixing and mastering at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios. It was a certified hit for Zucchero – an album of boisterous, life-affirming music. We instantly fell in love with the man and his work. From the strength of that initial exposure we started our collection, which now includes the newest, Black Cat (2016). We more recently snatched up tickets to what ended up being a fantastico, bellissimo, heart-rending blues and soul infused evening of music last Sunday night.

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What we’ve learned is what many readers may already know, and I recommend the rest of you learn, that Zucchero’s career spans more than three decades, with worldwide record sales over 60 million and an impressive collection of awards and accolades received over those years. The gospel, blues, soul and rock music influenced artist is considered to be “the father of the Italian blues.” Zucchero, meaning ‘sugar’ in Italian, is a nickname given to Adelmo by a schoolteacher when he was just a young boy growing up in Roncocesi, Italy. It’s an appropriate moniker for the musician whose work is often about love and whose presence on stage exudes joy, passion and positivity. When sampling Zucchero’s work for the first time, take the time to browse a variety of his albums/songs and notice that much of his work is akin to listening to many of those he has collaborated with over the years (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Peter Gabriel and so many more), while drawing strongly from his native Italian roots.

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Black Cat is a return to the artist’s much beloved blues & soul style work, and as such is being compared to his fourth studio album, oro incenso e mirra (“gold, incense & beer) in 1990. We read that the latest album was inspired while touring the southern U.S. and that Zucchero wrote the songs much as he did in the early days of his career, when things were more simple and he didn’t have as much to lose and didn’t care about the logic of the market. The album features among others the song S.O.S. (Streets of Surrender) penned by long time friend, Bono of U2. The song, born on the wave of terrorist attacks in Paris last November is a hymn against such hatred and violence.

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Zucchero’s March 19th, 2017 show at the San Francisco Palace of the Fine Arts not only joyfully delivered most of the tracks off of Black Cat, but with more than 30 tracks on the set list, it also included so many of his audience’s favorite songs spanning the past few decades, from the sexy Baila Morena (Shake 2001 – Spanish Version), to the passionate duet with Pavarotti Miserere (Miserere 1992), the soulfully beautiful Bacco Perbacco (Fly 2006), Un Soffio Caldo (Chocobeck 2012 – track titled Life on English version) and so many more. The band, which included exceptional musicians on violin, keyboards, slide guitar/guitar, bass, and drums, was top of class. Special guest Corrado Rustici, who worked on Shake, joined them on guitar for one track. The backdrop was, appropriately a framed heart, which was set off by moody low lighting, approaching brighter tones only when raising the house lights that illuminated the cheering crowd of both faithful followers and the newly informed.

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Though Zucchero occasionally sings in English, it’s when you listen to his sultry, whisky voice singing passionately in his native Italian tongue or occasional Spanish that you truly ‘feel’ his work. This is what we felt Sunday night, as the artist focused much less on any pop trappings, and absolutely more so his sultry, bluesy, and heartfelt work delivered in the more romantic languages. During one of only a couple breaks between songs, after apologizing the his English was “not so good,” Zucchero explained that he grew up listing to the music of many English artists, finding that even though he had no clue what they were saying, the “music spoke” to him, adding:

Music talk. You don’t have to understand everything. It’s the vibe, the feeling…

That we understood completely, as it was our experience that night, not knowing Italian beyond a few key words like Amore. Didn’t matter in the least, in fact it made the evening a unique and special experience. It certainly helped that Italian Americans and travelers at the show enthusiastically poured their affections out verbally and visibly all around us, helping to highlight what is so meaningful about Zucchero’s songs and lyrics. Catch this legendary artist in concert if you possibly can. Your heart will thank you.

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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.

Martin Barre’s Real Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a personal note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The musicians:

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

Track List:

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

Gilmour Returns to the Royal Albert Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jethro Tull’s Long, Exceptional, Songs

Jethro Tull      photo @Barry Wentzell
Jethro Tull photo @Barry Wentzell

I’ve been on record for a long time in these pages as to my love for progressive rock music, and in particular, the work of Jethro Tull. This superb band, led by prolific composer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Anderson, released about 20 studio albums over 30 years after forming in the late 1960’s, beginning with This Was in 1969 and ending with J-Tull Dot Com in 1999. This along with a number of collections, live albums, and a Christmas album from 2003 represent one of the great rock collections in music history. Last year I reviewed a wonderful book by Brian Rabey on the group’s legacy, which included extensive interviews with Ian Anderson and many of the band members through the years. Afterwards I went on the hunt for the next book on the subject, and was elated to discover an incredible and unique study of their two finest progressive rock albums.

JT_TwoLong_CoverThe book is Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play – Inside Two Long Songs, by Tim Smolko. Tim holds master’s degrees in Musicology and Library Science and as such he takes a scholarly approach to coverage of these two albums, along with the band itself, and the nature of progressive rock music in general. The subject albums, Thick as a Brick (1972) and the subsequent release, A Passion Play (1973), both topped billboard charts despite each being one long song lasting over 40 minutes. Both are considered progressive rock masterworks, taking that mantle alongside other luminaries such as Yes’ Close to the Edge, Gentle Giant’s Octopus, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Both albums have been re-released over the last two years as definitive re-masters assembled by the illustrious Steve Wilson and are thus ripe for re-examination!

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For any fan of Jethro Tull, progressive rock, and in particular these two albums, this book is an absolute revelation. I’ve not read another tome on a musician or their art that delves as deeply as this into the origin and context of a work, the compositional approach taken, it’s presentation, or it’s place in music history. The book contains some exhaustive passages documenting both compositions from a musician’s perspective. Dedicated fans who know the musical themes and lyrics in these long songs will enjoy this most while more casual fans may skim through some of the more detailed parts of the study.

Tim begins by establishing these records in the context of the 1970’s period of rock music, focusing on how Ian incorporated elements of medieval and Renaissance culture and music into the work, which had been shaped mostly by American blues and British folk influences. Tim outlines how an interest in preindustrial culture arose within Britain in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and how this was related to the ecology movement, the popularity of fantasy and medieval stories, and explosion of contemporary folk on both sides of the pond.   Of particular interest is his explanation of the extended form of song known as the medieval “lai”, how the form was used by troubadours, beginning in the thirteenth century, and how it was incorporated by Ian into these compositions.   One aspect of the structure that is relatable is the potential repetition of material from the first stanza into the last, with all that comes between employing an unconstrained framework – some parts even improvised. These are aspects of both Jethro Tull albums familiar to fans, such as the two repeated refrains:

And your wise men don’t know how it feel
To be thick as a brick

There was a rush along the Fulham road
There was a hush in the Passion Play

and the sometimes abrupt changes in meter, key, and song structure throughout. After this fascinating introduction, JT_TAABTim delves into Thick as a Brick first, followed by A Passion Play, including a segment detailing the aborted Chateau d’Isaster recordings that preceded the latter. He explains the strophic, AABA, verse-chorus and compound forms using examples most readers will know, including Tull’s but also Led Zeppelin, Queen and others. Then he writes a detailed study of the artwork, lyrics, music, and meaning of each. In order to illuminate the content of these long songs, Tim maps out the musical structure of each – reprinting lyrics and detailing and comparing different sections from several angles. This results in elaborate tables displaying each vocal and instrumental section mapping the song form, meter, pitch, lyrics, and time codes to these so that the informed reader may follow and gain insight as these complex compositions progress from start to finish.

One table that is quite useful maps entire length of each album into it’s numbered vocal and instrumental passages, in order, showing which band member or collaborator played what instruments in each. As I’ve always been fascinated by the few years during which Ian played soprano saxophone, it was wonderful to see those occurrences mapped out across each album. This was also how I confirmed before talking to Dee Palmer about this period, my recollection that strings were utilized only in the last instrumental segment of Thick as a Brick and “The Hare” segment of A Passion Play. Strings came back to the fore in Tull for the follow-up albums Warchild and particularly for Minstrel in the Gallery. In this way, Tim’s scholarly approach and detailed reporting adds much to a listeners understanding of what they are hearing.

JT_PassionTim goes on to recount the live concerts staged for each of these albums, the critical reception, the curious impact of Monty Python and even the availability of any live audio and video content (which for the record is, not much!)   The conclusion brings focus to these complex, sometimes inexplicable works, with some final commentary. Inevitably, there is a comparison and Tim joins most observers in naming Thick as a Brick the better of the two, possibly just so that A Passion Play fanatics like me have something to argue about.

For those readers who are not musicians and for whom “motives”, “pitch” and “song form” are foreign concepts, segments of chapters in the book will be challenging. Fortunately, the writer employs a clear, readable text to accompany these sections, so that even if one may feel a bit lost in the most technical parts, we are always returned quickly to relatable information, quotes from Ian Anderson himself, and other anecdotes. It’s worth spending a little extra time to study the text, so as to come away with a greater understanding of how pop/rock and progressive rock music is constructed. Ultimately it’s a rewarding celebration of these two outstanding albums and a reminder that the prog movement has created some of the most important and interesting musical art of the ages. It’s one of the most thoroughly researched, scholarly, and informative books on this genre ever released. Having poured over these albums in every format over the years, I was surprised to arrive at the last page with an even greater understanding of and passion for their mastery. “Geared toward the exceptional rather than the average” as Gerald would say. Highly recommended.

Supertramp in Paris, Again

Supertramp_DVDAnyone within range of an FM radio in the 1970’s has heard a lot from the band Supertramp. The group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Their breakup in 1983, which ended with Rick taking over the band, and Roger taking the highway, is one of the saddest in rock history. Last year they released the stunning video Live in Paris ’79 – one of the best-filmed concerts from any rock band of the era, coming to the market 34 years after the event.

Supertramp’s radio-friendly sound was a mix of progressive and pop – incorporating elements of rock, blues, jazz, and lots of honky-tonk piano, they balanced light and dark compositions to an exquisite blend. Joined by the accomplished John Helliwell on winds, Dougie Thomson on bass and steady drummer Bob Seibenberg, their core work from Crime of the Century (1974) to Famous Last Words (1982) brought the band increasing success.

Supertramp_RickV
Rick Davies

Rick and Roger added different skills to the group – Rick a tougher edge – more cynical lyrics backed by a mean honky-tonk piano or roadhouse blues as tight as Elton John. Roger more frequently displayed a gentle, spiritual personality, imploring listeners to open their minds and hearts. His vocals and accompaniment on 12 string acoustic and electric guitars as well as keyboards are stellar. The two composers, when they collaborated, when trading off ideas, alternating vocals – at times even speaking to each other within a song, created a sum that was bigger than the parts, even when they seemed to be coming from different walks of life. Witness lyrics from the bluesy ballad “Just a Normal Day,” from their under-appreciated masterpiece Crisis? What Crisis? (1975):

Rick: Well, I just feel, that every minute’s wasted,
My life is unreal….

Roger: …I don’t know what to say;
It just seems a normal day

Roger Hodgson
Roger Hodgson

By the time of their best selling release Breakfast in America (1979) they were mega stars, finally getting a #1 record in the states (#3 in the UK.) Many of the songs from that album are pure pop, and became radio staples, including the title track, “The Logical Song,” “Goodbye Stranger,” and “Take the Long Way Home.” The album also contained several deeper cuts including Roger’s “Child of Vision” – the fabulous workout for dual keys, Roger on Wurlitzer electric keyboard (a signature part of the album’s sound) and Rick on grand piano. Among other tracks, Rick wrote one of his prettiest ballads, “Casual Conversations” sporting the lyrics:

There’s no communication left between us
But is it me or you who’s to blame?

Supertramp_band
The band…

Though the details are debated, it’s clear that Rick and Roger’s union was fracturing before and during this period. Nonetheless, they mounted a huge international tour to support Breakfast in America – breaking attendance records at the time – and they released their first live album Paris (1980) taken from the shows at the Pavilion de Paris, 1979.

Split Screen!
Split Screen!

Thirty four years after the show, a film of the third night in Paris has been released on video – a digitally restored, brightly lit, 16mm 4 camera shot film with crisp audio that captures nearly the complete set. Here it’s possible to see split screen shots of Rick at the piano with Roger at guitar or keys along with close up shots of all the band members in their prime. The DVD should be a revelation for any fan that missed these tours, and a fond reminder for anyone lucky enough to have attended. Highlights include the opener “School” as the audience cheer to the first sound of Rick’s harmonica. The companion piece “Bloody Well Right” establishes their rocking credentials, while “Even in the Quietest Moments” calms the spirit. The centerpiece for this viewer is the one-two punch of Rick’s brilliant vocal and piano work on “Another Man’s Woman” which then leads into Roger’s “Child of Vision.” In the latter, the two play their dual keyboards in harmonic perfection.

Together
Together

After one more album, the aptly titled …Famous Last Words… in 1982 and the tour that followed, Roger and Rick split. Since that time, Rick has written and recorded a handful of albums with the band, but it’s impossible not to despair at Roger’s absence. Roger has done a bit of solo work, and recently at long last began playing songs he wrote for the group in concert. Any live show with either of these artists is a treat but the newly minted concert video is now the best way to see what Supertramp was about when they were still together.

Paula Frazer and Tarnation

Paula_3Paula Frazer is a singer/songwriter and recording artist whose work is characterized as “alternative country,” or “electric folk.”  Her voice is absolutely gorgeous – in the vein of a Emmylou Harris or Shawn Colvin, and very modern.  Her lyrics touch on themes of love and loss.  Her music and her own playing demonstrate very eclectic, refined tastes.  Paula’s recording history includes solo works and releases under the name Tarnation or Paula Frazer and Tarnation – all of which are essentially Paula and her many friends and collaborators.  She released three records as Tarnation during the 90’s on the Nufsed and 4AD labels, then released four more records since the turn of the century as Paula Frazer solo or plus Tarnation (full discography here). Paula spent part of the last several years playing with Skystone and is about to release a new EP this September with a complete album next March.

Paula_CornershopPaula has also been a guest on recordings by numerous friends and contemporaries.  A personal favorite is her vocal on Cornershop’s “Good to Be on the Road Back Home Again” from 1997.  I’d only just recently been introduced to her work, and have fallen for her many beautiful, sometimes haunting recordings.  I had the chance to talk with Paula in her Victorian era San Francisco home this week surrounded by her instruments, crafts and a weaving loom.  We started by discussing her many live performances, and her love of playing live in almost any setting:

D: How do you decide on the venues to play?

Mostly through friends, but it’s a funny as it changes so much.  The bookers seem to change and move around – so I’m always calling and asking “Do you know anyone at this venue?”  We play many diverse sites, and even are happy to play at a party – hang out talk to people, play some songs.  Our music works well for that – I have a pedal steel player, David Cuetter, and another fellow, Jacob Aranda, who sings with me and plays mandolin and guitar and I play guitar and we trade off acoustic and electric.  It works out really well.

Paula_1D: As a working musician, you used to go from release, to concert, to release, but it seems now you are moving ahead as part of a community

Yeah, its always been that way – we were talking about Tarnation and what people think is Tarnation vs. my solo stuff – its really the same because I’ve always played with different musicians – whoever is available.  Sometimes musicians can play in town but they can’t go on tour because they have a family or something or there’s not enough money involved – just different things – people can’t quit their jobs and go on tour – or people move away.  So Tarnation was never really a set band – every record had different musicians playing on it.  I started out playing solo as Tarnation, then with a couple of guys who moved on, then others – I kept changing the lineup.  It’s always been like that.

D: During the early days of Tarnation, Gentle Creatures was released on the 4AD label and that continued with Mirador in 1997 with the addition of Warner Bros in the states.  What was going on at that time?

I did play some shows under the name Tarnation with some people and we played at the Great American Music Hall, and we met David Katznelson from Warner’s who liked us but was not ready to put us there without development – so he talked with 4AD about doing the first record and then combined their efforts on the second.

D: I was thinking about that word “development” when labels used to be able to take time with an artist over multiple releases – seems less common today.

Paula_GuitarsIt still happens but it does not seem as frequent as in the 90’s – there are still some development deals with labels, but its not like it used to be. A lot of things are coming into play with that – lack of CD sales, attitudes about “music should be free” and “artists should have a day job.”  I don’t know where it’s going but it still feels like the laws have not caught up to the technology – there isn’t a lot of protection for artists and musicians these days or even a lot of support.  In the 70’s there was a lot of art everywhere – still happens, you can go downtown and see a sculpture, but not like it was.  So it seems to have trickled out of fashion – even getting music and art to be taught in school is difficult now.

D: Then there were three records on the Birdman label – was there some development work on your behalf there.

Paula_2David Katznelson who worked at Warner/Reprise and first saw me play, also had Birdman Records – he talked to 4AD about me.  He and Mark Koselic (Red House Painters) talked me up – a few people at the time helped, which is wonderful when people do that.  David worked out the deal with 4AD and Reprise.  After that he continued to put my records out on Birdman – he left Reprise and moved up here and had a family and so Birdman faded back after awhile.  It’s hard to sell physical media anymore.

D: How is iTunes working as a way to get your music out there?  Are the economics similar or very different from selling physical media?

Paula_GIJaneI notice that most of what I’ve made as come from soundtrack work – licensing – and it seems how so many people make a living now.  I’ve played on several soundtracks – most fun was “The Breakup” with Keifer Sullivan and Bridget Fonda as they flew me down to LA to play along with the film.  Also I played a track for the film G.I. Jane which starred Demi Moore. I have not seen a lot of money from downloads, because I think a lot of it goes to recoupables – I don’t owe money out of pocket but did have expenses from touring and those things – I hope it’s going to that.

D: During the last 5-7 years there has not been a full album release – what’s been your path?

Paula_SkystoneMuch of this time has been playing with Skystone.  We never toured or released a record other then a song on a compilation for Northern Star Records.  We played together for a couple of years – me, Brock Galland (guitar/voice) and Royce Seader (drums.)  Royce more recently moved to New York.  The thing that was cool about Skystone was we were playing more heavy sounding stuff but I was still singing the same way I did in Tarnation – just louder!  It really made my voice a lot stronger.

D: What music or musicians do you like out there today?

Paula_DrumsThere is a band called Prairie Dog which is Sara Beth Nelson – I love her music and seeing her play.  Tom Heyman, I love his stuff – we’ve played together and he plays all kinds of instruments.  I like Sea Dramas a lot – they are great – a lot like Magnetic Fields.  Ryan Fuller from Fort King was on the bill at a recent Virginia City show.  Aaron Embry, Tim and Nicki Bluhm – all favorites. On the national front, I listen to a lot of ‘70’s music but not as many new bands.  From the past there’s Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Karen Carpenter, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, the Wilson sisters from Heart, and… Ennio Morriconi – I would love to sing on any of his soundtracks. Milton Nascimento is a Brazilian player who plays psychedelic jazz and other forms – the records and arrangements are wonderful.  I would like to sing with him – he’s still out touring.  I would love some day to sing with the Brendan Perry, the lead singer from Dead Can Dance – he has a great voice.  So many people I would love to sing with are gone – maybe we will eventually project holograms and then be able to again!

Part of the reason I like the older stuff is because with newer material the mastering has become so blasted out – it’s bass-ed out, blown out – too loud. It’s just not easy to listen to for my ears – I like the way we used to do it with analogue equipment.  Paula_analogWhen you make a modern record you have to put it at a certain level so it can play up along side all the new productions –otherwise the volume isn’t stable.

D: How does your compositional process work?

There been a few times where I have a concept and I sit down and write it down and write music to it, but more typically I write the music, and then the concepts and words after.  Mostly its love songs, or “lost love” songs,  except with Skystone when I was writing about UFO’s and mystical things.  Skystone sounded like Heart, who I was influenced by, plus Siousxie and then we did some stuff that sounded like Hawkwind!  I love Gong and Hawkwind.

D: What’s been happening more recently and what’s next for you?

Recent things include – Fresh and Only’s just came out with a record that I’m on – they are really good – people love them. I was on a Greg Ashley recording last year. I’m always singing on people’s stuff – might do one with Jeffrey Luck Lucas soon.

Paula_InSomeTime_CoverI am working on a new album for next year – looking to put out an EP called In Some Time with three songs this September – the three tracks on the EP are:

– In Some Time –

Paula Frazer – Vocals, guitar, Bass, Greg Moore – Vocals, Sam Foster – drums, Jesse Jackson – Guitar, Thomas Heyman – pedal steel, engineered by Desmond Shea, Paula Frazer and Nigel Pavao, mixed by Nigel Pavao, mastered by Alex Oropeza

– On The Way Back Home –

Paula Frazer – Vocals, guitar, percussion, Greg Moore – Vocals, Sam Foster – drums, Jesse Jackson – Guitar, Adam Thompson – Bass, engineered by Jay Bronzini, Desmond Shea, Paula Frazer and Nigel Pavao, mixed by Nigel Pavao, mastered by Alex Oropeza

– Distant Star -
Paula Frazer – Vocals, guitar, Bass, Percussion, Donny Newenhouse – drums, Jesse Jackson – Guitar, engineered by Nigel Pavao, mixed by Nigel Pavao, mastered by Alex Oropeza

– Songs Written by Paula Frazer
Tarnation Publishing BMI
Art layout by John Borruso

The release date will be 9/23, with Pre-Orders starting on 9/16.  The full album titled What is and Was is planned for a March release and I’m looking at labels for that release now.

D: I’ve listened to the first three tracks from the record, and would describe them as being in the same neighborhood as with Paula’s last release Now It’s Time.  More pretty and melancholic electronic folk that’s soothing while also being interesting throughout. One difference is in Paula’s vocal delivery – it’s stronger, more up front in the mix – a likely result of the time she’s spent on the louder side of rock most recently.  Expert, crafted musicianship, and even some flute!  Highly recommended.  Also if you happen to be in Los Angeles, here are a couple of upcoming dates:

– Sept 19 at Taix – 10pm
Taix French Restaurant
1911 W. Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026
Phone: (213) 484-1265
http://taixfrench.com/

– Sept 20 at HM157 – 8 pm
Historical Monument No. 157
3110 N Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90031
Phone: 562-895-9399
http://www.hm157.com/welcome?splash=1