Tag Archives: king crimson

Dear John

John Wetton just passed away. Many fans have known that this brave and talented artist had been fighting cancer, going through successive treatments that did not lead to recovery. I didn’t know John, only met him twice, but I love his work and have great respect and admiration for his life and journey. The verses and choruses of his greatest music have been running through my head this morning since waking to read the sad announcement. He was and will be remembered as one of the most important and prolific rock artists of our time.

Just want to say a few things, without a deep encyclopedic review of the man and his work. While John lent his time to several projects early in his career, the first really impactful music I heard from the man was from his work with King Crimson. Back when we used to accost our friends to exclaim, “listen to this record!” one of mine handed me two LP’s – wettonjohn2017_crimson_lark_72dpiCrimson’s Lark’s Tongues in Aspic (1973) and Starless And Bible Black (1974). I found this music cast a kind of strange spell while at the same time being aurally shocking, challenging beyond belief, utterly lacking in the kind of sound that would attract anyone but serious musicians. It captivated me and made me a lifelong fan of those who contributed. These two albums capture almost everything that made John such a compelling songwriter, player and vocalist. To be sure, his work on that thunderous monster bass was often stunning – take “The Talking Drum,” a relentless dissonant instrumental driven by Bill Bruford’s tuned toms and John’s four-string attack. The momentous sound of his bass could and sometimes did overwhelm the mix in concert. Full stop… one great bass player.

But what always stuck with me, and kept me collecting John’s work through the next 40 years was his truly golden expressive voice. There was a majestic power to that voice, an incredible sustain and phrasing that alternated between sarcastic and sublime, often with a touch of vibrato but more frequently long clear pitch-perfect tones. This was a voice tailor made for progressive rock, particularly on those songs that seemed to come from an earlier time, that pre-industrial acoustic-meets-electric modern renaissance. Take his gorgeous vocal on “Book of Saturdays” and lines such as “Every time I try to leave you, You laugh just the same.” Or, something more intense and biting from “Easy Money” “Getting fat on your lucky star… Making easy money.” John had an uncanny ability to deliver what dynamic prog music demanded, a lead vocal that could easily flex between gentle and more violent passages. Right from the start, that voice had everything in its arsenal -a yearning that brought the blues, a bite, a howl for justice, a plea for sanity, or just a call to celebrate.

wettonjohn2017_uknancover_72dpiAfter Crimson’s untimely disbandment in 1974, John cast about a bit, eventually forming U.K. with prog luminaries, a band that racked up just two albums followed by a live one taken from the tour I saw, their sophomore outing supporting Danger Money when they opened for Jethro Tull in 1979 as a three piece. This legendary band, though short-lived, tops my list for great Wetton compositions played with maximum dynamics by virtuoso musicians Eddie Jobson, Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth and Terry Bozzio. To a great extent, while similar to Crimson in dynamics, this work finds John in his best voice, alternating between near ballads like “Renevous 6:02” and “Ceasar’s Palace Blues.”

When this outfit also broke up, John released his first solo album, which made clear that he was well capable of writing music that was easier on the ears, more major tones, a bit less minor. With this under his belt, John went on to form “super group” Asia where he found the commercial success that had eluded his more musically challenging work of the 70s. With the debut Asia album John finally made a more accessible form of pop music that also captured a wider audience. The concert in support of the album was unforgettable, a master class in prog and pop that I will never forget. I’ve seen him live in concert numerous times over the years, and never saw a lazy or subpar performance, even when he had a cold or off night.

John left behind a large catalog of solo work, and collaborations with so many peers, including most notably keyboard player Geoff Downes and guitarist Phil Manzanera. These albums explore every facet of the rock art – some jazz-infused, some progressive, most really essential rock music with some pop to balance it all out. He worked tirelessly, releasing numerous albums, touring frequently. Sure there were some bumps in the road, but there is so much treasure in the man’s large catalog of music that it will stand the test of time as a major contribution to the form.

wettonjohn2017_arkangelcover_72dpiMy favorite moment of John’s is on his 1998 solo album Arkangel. It reportedly came at a time of personal challenges for this artist, and it’s hard not to consider the title track and some of the content overall as autobiographical. Opening with a crack of thunder, this powerful tome includes fitting lyrics for the fighter:

You are my arkangel, my heart and my right hand
When in the face of danger we stand

The danger is over, the artist now quieted, rest in peace John Wetton, safe journey.

wettonjohn2017_withuk_72dpi

Because John is featured in my book for his work with both U.K. and King Crimson, I searched for months for photos of the man, and fortunately discovered Lisa Tanner, one of the great photographers of the era, who captured this really beautiful shot of John and his frets…thank you Lisa!

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.

badcompanylive_interior_144dpi

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…

badcompanylive2016_rogers_144dpi
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

 

 

American Football Plays Again

AmericanFootball_band_lp_coverOne album and an EP, active for just three short years, absent for fifteen. Not exactly a recipe for enduring fame. But, against all odds, it worked for the band American Football, formed in the late 1990s in Illinois. Founders Mike Kinsella (vocals, guitars, bass), Steve Holmes (guitars, Wurlitzer) and Steve Lamos (drums, trumpet) released a self-titled EP in 1998 on Polyvinyl records. A full-length debut album followed this in 1999. While the record did well on college radio stations at the time, the band broke up as members moved away from the college town of University of Illinois and went on to other pursuits. Since that time, it has become a cult classic.

AmericanFootball_Band2_72dpi

Influenced by a range of artists including Steve Reich, the dreamy sound of American Football is an amalgam of alt-rock, emo and jazz, with varying time signatures and polyrhythmic interlocking guitars. Lyrics are simple and confessional, sung in a loose manner that brings to mind the confusion and alienation that can inflict high school and college aged students. It’s music with and about feelings. Kinsella called their musical ideas “noodly and meandering” yet the songs are carefully built with precise counterpoint. While rooted in emo and math-rock, listeners may notice the influence of bands as diverse as King Crimson, and Radiohead hidden in these songs. They are unique, and comprise an album that was and remains a classic, must-have record. Even the cover art adds to the whole, featuring a photo of an iconic Midwestern home near the University, taken by Chris Strong, used ever since as their defining iconography.

AmericanFootball_Band1_72dpi

After the band decided to revisit the work and to reunite for some live tour dates in 2014, the album was reissued as a deluxe edition with extra tracks, and a music video directed by Chris Strong for the lead-off track “Never Meant” was released. Apparently Polyvinyl’s website crashed under the weight of traffic, such was the pent up interest in this band, and their only full length record. New live shows that have been staged in the U.K. and USA feature Kinsella’s cousin Nate on bass, and occasional percussion by, to this writer, an unknown band tech.

AmericanFootball_Setlist_72dpi
The Set List…

The band made their way to San Francisco as part of the Noise Pop music festival last Saturday night, February 27, and the Regency Ballroom. It was a fantastic show that as one would expect featured nearly their entire debut album, along with a many new and rare tracks. Among these were “Tamborine,” “Letters,” “Emotional,” “Leaving Soon,” “New Song,” and “Five Silent Miles,” the leadoff track on the set list. Lighting was simple and tasteful, illuminating a full size image of their only album’s iconic cover photo. The show ended as that album began, with the first track from their debut album, “Never Meant.” It was a fantastic concert, attended by fans and newcomers alike, heaping praise on this multi-talented band.

AmericanFootball_Band4_72dpi

Asked if there were any questions before they played the final encore, described as “the last song we know how to play,” one audience member asked if they would go on another long hiatus. Kinsella mused, “We’ll be back in another 15 years when I’m 54. I’m going to keep these jeans and wear them again!” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that….

AmericanFootball_Drums_72dpi

AmericanFootball_Band3_72dpi

AmericanFootball_Ad_72dpi

PFM Cooks

PFM_SinglePhoto_72dpiPremiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) is an Italian progressive rock band founded in 1970. PFM’s unique blend of influences and genre-bending compositions echoed many of the themes of their British counterparts such as Genesis and Gentle Giant, while never sounding derivative. Given their Italian heritage, the difference with PFM was in their sense of drama and bravado, their lush melodies and operatic flourishes, all delivered in a blues and rock framework that incorporated elements of traditional Italian music. On top of their skills at composing and arranging these pieces, every band member was a virtuoso musician, including Franz Di Cioccio (drums, lead vocals), Franco Mussida (guitars, lead vocals), Mauro Pagani (violin, flute), and Flavio Premoli (keyboards, lead vocals). Original bass player Giorgio Piazza left the band just after the release of Photos of Ghosts, and was replaced by another fantastic bassist, Patrick Djivas, who has remained with the group ever since. Of the many amazing things about PFM, their live performances are legendary in prog circles based on the sheer adrenaline and talent of the musicianship on display. At times each player seemed to be outdoing the next while extending jams to such a frenetic pace, one would be reminded of a wayward locomotive train, threatening to, but never actually careening off the tracks.

PFM_PhotosOfGhostsCover_72dpiPFM was founded at the dawn of the 1970s, recording two albums with Italian language lyrics Storia di un minuto and Per un amico in 1971-72 before coming to the attention of Greg Lake who signed the band to ELP’s new label Manticore. Lake arranged for lyricist Peter Sinfield, who had worked with King Crimson, ELP and others to write new lyrics, at which point the band re-recorded some of their existing songs and new pieces with these English lyrics, producing Photos of Ghosts in 1973. It’s a brilliant album, from opener “River of Life,” to closer and continuing live favorite “Promenade the Puzzle.” A combination of well chosen layers of grand piano, organ, Mellotron and Moog synthesizer, classical acoustic and electric guitar, colorful often pastoral flute and violin, all backed by powerful yet nuanced percussion renders this album a masterpiece. One track “Il Banchetto” is unchanged from its original version, presented with Italian lyrics and liner notes that explain the meaning of its beautifully sung passages. On the strength of that track alone, this writer collected the original records; a lead anyone interested in the band should follow. PFM went on to record a third Italian language record L’isola di niente in 1974, directly shipping an English language counterpart The World Became the World the same year.

PFM_CookPromo_72dpi

The band toured the United States for the first time in 1974, opening for several established acts such as Aerosmith and Peter Frampton. They appeared for an amazing six nights July 16-21 at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, a venue that could barely contain the talent on display. PFM recorded their first live album, the aptly titled Cook on this tour, which was released as a severely truncated single LP in order to introduce the band to a wider audience. This live album was more recently released as a highly recommended expanded three CD set containing the entire performance culled from the PFM_CookCover_72dpisame shows. The sets were a showcase for the band’s lightening fast delivery of tremendously complex progressive rock music, from the very Italian sounds of “Four Holes in the Ground” to the blues rocker “Alta Loma Nine ‘Til Five” featuring an impressive guitar solo from Mussida. Fans of the band who were privileged to catch any of these shows without exception recall being shocked and amazed at these fantastic concerts, often reporting that the band “stole the show” from the intended headliners.

After this tour, PFM recruited an additional lead singer Bernardo Lanzetti who took most of the lead vocals on PFM’s last two English language releases Chocolate Kings (1975) and the jazz-fusion driven Jet Lag, recorded in Los Angeles and released in 1977. Lanzetti’s powerful voice fronted a more aggressive sound on these albums, each of which contain an extended central piece, “Out of the Roundabout” on Chocolate Kings, and the title track from Jet Lag, the last record to be released on an American label. These are excellent examples of the progressive rock form, featuring more of PFM’s signature allegro jams and frantic, driven performances. In particular, an increased use of fretless bass from Djivas paired with fusionesque Rhodes piano leads from Premoli elevate Jet Lag to the top tier of the band’s many albums. Though members have come and gone since the end of the 70s, PFM has continued to record and release new material every decade since their inception, each work continuing to demonstrate the enduring talent of these fine musicians.

Many fans like this author discovered PFM a bit too late to see any of their shows outside Italy have since been able to see the band in various reformations at progressive rock festivals and short tours. It’s worth noting that while film is scarce, audio recordings are plentiful, from the most important, now expanded official release Cook, to live CDs termed “official bootlegs” which capture a series of tours since PFM’s inception, volumes numbered under the heading PFM – 10 Anni Live. Arguably given the fact that Cook captures the band in its original lineup, the most important of these is Volume 4: 1977-1978, the Jet Lag Tour, which captures a blistering live performance during Lanzetti’s tenure with the band, and includes tracks from Passpartu, which marked the end of his involvement with PFM.

ON FILM

PFM_PaperCharmsBoxSet_72dpiPaper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976 (2015), Cherry Red Records, 25 min, 1.5:1

As mentioned, film of PFM is hard to find, and this author has not been able to locate a complete performance by the band during their 1970s heyday on video. However black-and-white film of the band performing songs from their first album on Italian television RAI can be found on Progressive Rock in Italy, and on streaming services, though this is difficult to find on DVD. Fortunately, the best of their television performances, taken from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in the mid 70s are available on the recent compilation available at Cherry Red Records, Paper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976. These films, recorded in 1.5:1 aspect ratio and somehow retaining color and clarity after all these years, are a revelation, a rare chance to see the band in their prime, in studio and stage performances of “Four Holes in the Ground”, “Celebration”, “Mr. Nine ‘Till Five” with the 1974-75 lineup and the track “Chocolate Kings” in 1976 which showcases singer Lanzetti’s contribution. The camera moves smoothly about the band members, providing revealing close-ups of keys, toms, winds and frets, uninterrupted by distracting transitions or other flourishes. This is how the band is best presented, simply performing their most enduring songs with lightening fast precision and aplomb.

PFM_FilmStripFilm Strip: (top to bottom) (a) Close-up of winds/violin player Pagani demonstrating rich, vibrant colors (b) Premoli with clear view of his work on keys (c) Mussida shown mid-distance provides a study of his soloing technique (d) Di Cioccio captured less frequently, as is the norm for drummers in early rock video (e) Lanzetti, in 76, part of the best preserved film segment from BBC’s OGWT

Änglagård at Sea

CTTE_Poster_72dpiLast month we attended the third annual progressive rock festival, Cruise To The Edge. Of the many performances on that voyage, including sets from Yes, Marillion, PFM, Three Friends, Martin Barre, Moon Safari, and so many others, there was one group that made a very rare appearance, and stood out from the pack, and that was Swedish progressive rock band Änglagård. Their two sets were masterful, florid demonstrations of the sonic power and grace that this genre can attain.

Anglagard_BandSax_72dpi

Änglagård charted a new course for the progressive rock genre beginning in 1991 with the release of their debut Hybris. With influences such as King Crimson, SFF, Shylock, Ragnarok and other European bands, Änglagård incorporated flute and acoustic instruments, along with electric guitars, keyboards and vocals, all anchored by Johan Brand’s confident leads on Rickenbacker Bass and then drummer Mattias Olsson’s massive array of toms, bells, and varied forms of percussion. The debut was a spectacular, influential masterwork that drew audiences already attuned to the prog genre, along with new fans attracted by the mix of beautiful pastoral and euro-folk songs infused with powerful, metal passages.

Anglagard_Flute_72dpi

Fans and critics also rightly applauded their second album, the all-instrumental Epilog in 1994. At this point, unfortunately, the band went on a very long hiatus. With the exception of several performances in 2003 including one at Nearfest, the group did not return to the spotlight until July 2012 when they released their third album Viljans Oga. Shortly after this, Tord Lindman rejoined the band and they recruited new members, touring on and off during 2013, with the following lineup, unchanged when we saw them last month on the cruise:

Anna Holmgren (flute, saxophone, Mellotron, recorder, melodica)
Johan Brand (bass, moog Taurus basspedals, atmospheric sound
Tord Lindman (guitar, vocals, gong and atmospheric sound
Erik Hammarstrom (drums, cymbals, vibraphone, glockenspiel, tubular bells, gran casa, gong)
Linus Kase (Hammond B3, Mellotron, fender phodes, moog voyager, piano, soprano saxophone, vocals)

Anglagard_GuitarSing_72dpi
One of the tour stops in 2013 was for a series of performances on March 15, 16, and 17th in Japan at Club Sitta. These were recorded for an amazing new live album, Prog pa Svenska, Live Anglagard_LiveCD_72dpiin Japan released January 2014. The album captures the band in top form, with older tracks revitalized and colored with a broader palette, a more dynamic range. In liner notes for the album, Matt Di Giordano claims rightly that the band “paint a hurricane of sound with more subtle shades than ever.” The album begins with a new track “Introvert
us” described as “melodies and riffs of all kinds flying across the room. Intricate drum patterns, whining guitar, ripping bass lines, beautiful Mellotron, proggy Hammond riffs, fuzzy Wurlitzer melodies, blistering saxophone and ornamented flute.” It’s an amazing document of a band coming back to form, and going beyond their beginnings, captured at just the right time in front of rapturous fans. It’s the launching point for their work on a new album.

Anglagard_Bass_72dpi

In correspondence with bassist Johan Brand, he told me about the band’s work on that new album. I asked how the work was progressing, and if there will be a change in sound or approach:

Johan: Everyone in the band has amassed quite a lot of new written material that we are going to put together now as new Änglagård songs. I dare not comment on how the new record might sound. But we are not a band which softens with age and begins to play more readily available prog …No… Änglagård are uncompromising when it comes to song composition, sound, recording and artwork.

Therefore we will complete the entire process ourselves. We are being meticulous in creating a new record will have the same high quality as the early albums.

I dare not say when the record will be completed but it shouldn’t take 10 years this time! What I can say is that we plan to record each track as much as possible live in a studio environment. We think it is important that the material have grove and feel real and free.

In the meantime, fans and newcomers will be interested to know that this month the Japanese record label, Disc Union will release a deluxe CD box as a tribute to the album Hybris titled 23 years of Hybris.

The box is limited to 500 numbered copies. It will be three CDs with lots of inserts and a thick book of photographs from the early years that have never before been published:

CD1, Original Studio Recording, Hybris
CD2, Early Tapes, old demos, live material, jam sessions
CD3, Radio documentary

For any fan of progressive rock, or adventurous music in general, this will make a stylish holiday gift!

Anglagard_keys_72dpi

Anglagard_Drums_72dpi

______________________

One of the very cool things about Änglagård’s sets on the cruise is that they varied the two shows so as to play a larger cross section of their excellent material. The set lists for the cruise were:

Pool stage.

Höstsejd
Vandringar i vilsenhet
Sorgmantel
Jordrök
Sista somrar

Atrium stage:

Prolog
Höstsejd
Längtans klocka
Introvertus fugu part1
I från klarhet till klarhet
Kung bore

Every attendee I talked to was excited to vote for Änglagård’s return to the next Cruise To The Edge voyage planned for 2017. Let’s hope that happens, as this band embodies modern progressive rock, and deserves to be seen and heard by every fan of the genre.

Anglagard_Guitar2In_72dpi

Top Ten Concerts from 2014

kate_doug_hamThis year has been one of the greatest ever for live music based on the sheer number of amazing rock concerts I was privileged to witness. Many milestones were hit – Kate Bush performing 22 sold out shows in London 35 years after her first and only tour – Stevie Wonder doing all of Songs in the Key of Life – his masterwork from which had never played more than 3-4 numbers – Fleetwood Mac with Christine McVie back after 16 years absence from touring – Yusuf / Cat Stevens, back in the U.S. 38 years since his last appearance here. To top it off, Sir Paul McCartney, playing the final event at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the site of the last Beatles concert some 50 years prior. So quite a few firsts, which may become “lasts” – one never knows.

Special mention this year goes to the “progressive rock cruise” called Cruise to the Edge. On that journey my lovely wife joined me and we saw Steve Hackett, Yes, UK, Tangerine Dream, Marillion, and most importantly for me, Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM, from Italy) and Three Friends (Gentle Giant’s guitarist Gary Green and drummer Malcolm with full band of hired help). Both of these shows were absolutely fantastic – both celebrating 70’s progressive rock and keeping it alive with surprising precision and power.

Hard to pick a top ten out of these, but here goes:

  1. Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo Theater, London

IMG_1127This was one of those “Once-in-a-lifetime” experiences as we witnessed the third of what were 22 highly anticipated Kate Bush concerts she staged after 35 years absence. As the night’s proceedings and the accompanying media frenzy proved, this long absence was a terrible shame. Focusing on The Hounds of Love (1985) and Aerial (2005) irked some fans, but it gave her the chance to perform two acts of the best rock theater ever staged – heights only reached by the likes of Pink Floyd and Genesis. Absolutely brilliant – here’s hoping they filmed it as well!

  1. Three Friends (Gentle Giant), CTTE

P1000511Because I had not been able to see Gentle Giant until their last ever show at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, I had not seen them perform many of their complex classic works live. Gary Green (guitar) and Malcolm Mortimore (drums) hired a band of crack musicians calling themselves Three Friends and changed all that on the cruise as they tore through almost all of the third Gentle Giant album, Three Friends (1972) along with something from almost every record made between their debut and Interview. Early in they played “The Moon is Down” – one of four tracks they would include from Acquiring the Taste (1971). They perfectly nailed this dense composition going beyond all expectations. For this fan the whole experience was true nirvana.

  1. Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), CTTE 

P1000160PFM was Italy’s answer to the British progressive rock invasion of the ‘70’s. Their records were unique, beautiful, and completely original. We had been able to catch them early in this millennia at a prog rock festival, but the shows on the cruise beat that, as the band covered lots of tracks from their first five releases, along with a few more recent, including one from PFM In Classic – Da Mozart A Celebration. A highlight of the show was their performance of “Promenade The Puzzle”, an early classic with brilliant lyrics by former King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield.  It was a truly rare treat to witness these maestros perform live, and to interview them for Gonzo Weekly as well!

  1. Yusuf / Cat Stevens, Nokia Live Theater, Los Angeles

cat3Cat Stevens has been absent from the stage in the U.S. for 38 years. The first concert I ever attended was his last – the Majikat tour in 1976 with my sister Sue. My 7th grade Social Studies teacher had us reading and interpreting his lyrics in class, focusing on his seminal album Tea for the Tillerman. At that first concert, in my 15th year, I discovered the amazing impact seeing an artist perform live could have on a heart. “The Wind” was the first song on the set list back then, and again when Yusuf / Cat Stevens came to the Nokia Live theater in December. What was surprising and gratifying about this show was that he chose songs from his whole career, including the Foreigner suite, Days of the Old Schoolyard from IsItSo, and others. His voice is aged like fine wine and the show was superb.

  1. Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life Tour, Oakland Arena

stevie_bandUnbelievable, fantastic, heartwarming, tear jerking joyous show in which one of our finest artists played his entire masterwork from 1976, sounding like he’s never aged a day since. Joined by 30 musicians including a 10 piece orchestra, 6 piece horn section, three keyboard players, three drummers, numerous backup singers, bass, and guests, each track was played with it’s perfect accompaniment, whether that meant Stevie alone, as on “If It’s Magic” or all 30 as with the anthemic finale “As”.

  1. King Crimson, Warfield Theater, San Francisco

KC_Oct4_BowThis progressive rock juggernaut brought their seven-man supersonic distortion machine to the states for a series of highly anticipated concerts. These were epic events for King Crimson fans. For the first time in what seems like forever, leader Robert Fripp agreed to dust off older tracks like “Pictures of a City” from In the Wake of Poseidon (1970), “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” from Islands (1971). Given he had winds genius Mel Collins in the band they were able to reproduce those rare treats with surprising ferocity, particularly “The Letters” which was just stunning. The three-man drum assault was legendary. I’ve never seen Robert appear more happy and excited to be addressing his followers!

  1. Elbow, Fox Theater, Oakland

P1010130Elbow played one of the top shows we’ve seen this year.  Singer Guy Garvey led the group through a lengthy set that included much of the latest album, along with highlights from their catalog of recordings.  What was really impressive is how this singer emotes and connects with the audience.  At times the languid pace threatens to overstay it’s welcome, but this band can meander between slow and soulful to more medium paced bits, building the dynamics of a song until the audience can be swept up in the emotion and joy of their beautiful melodies, their meaningful lyrics, and Guy’s silky smooth vocal delivery.  In this way I would compare them to The National – one of the other great live acts seen last spring.

  1. The National, Greek Theater, Oakland

P1000846The band were in fine form this year, supporting 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, driving their slow burning moody compositions to lovely crescendos – punctuating dark passages with horns and carefully placed guitars and keys to enliven the procession.  Matt is a baritone and as such inhabits the sound spectrum at the low end, spilling out his unique lyrics, huddling over his mic, or stalking the stage to accentuate the sound of their work.  This time out, the band backed the volume down during key passages, allowing Matt to be heard clearly and gain additional dynamics in the mix – a clever way to help connect him and the band to the audience.  The show was a wonderful demonstration of their wares – the best yet for this viewer.

  1. The Eels, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco

Eels_closeupThis American alt-rock band played the best and most impactful show I’ve seen them deliver here in the city. Since so much of singer-songwriter E’s music does tend toward dark and painful subjects (he calls it “soft bummer pop”), his work in large quantities can threaten to depress. However on this night, the crack band of musicians aided the man, teetering perfectly between the melancholy and happy, quirky sides of his catalog, peppering the sadder tracks with the upbeat. Notably, E sang several covers, including lovely renditions of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” (okay small tears were shed) “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis and “Turn on Your Radio” by the similarly underrated and wonderful Nilsson. Friends of soft-bummer pop unite!

  1. Fleetwood Mac, Oakland Arena, Oakland
Christine McVie
Christine McVie

The Mac is back! They rolled into the town for the “On With The Show” tour featuring the return of Christine McVie – singer, songwriter and keyboard player who left the band to retire some 16 years ago. The audience greeted her with rapturous applause. It was wonderful to hear the band whole again, back to their 1975 lineup, which endured for so many years producing mega hits on the albums “Fleetwood Mac” (1975) through Tango in the Night (1987).

 

paul_ticketHonorable mention goes out to other amazing artists we caught this year including Paul McCartney, Yes, UK, Steve Hackett (on his Genesis revisited tour), Kraftwerk, Queen (with “glambert”), Tom Petty, Neil Finn, Midlake, Daniel Lanois, America, Erasure, Elton John, Tears for Fears, Adrian Belew, Paula Frazer, The Musical Box and others. Thank you to Artina for being so open minded and musically inclined, and for taking so many of the best photos we shot during the year. I will have to renew that resolution to catch more new artists this year – we are starting in January with Ty Segall. Happy New Year, everyone….

Adrian Belew goes to the Chapel

belew_press_photoAdrian Belew is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist and one of the most prolific and talented artists of our time. He is a “musicians musician” in that those who play or who are into music as a pursuit inevitably know his work, whereas the more casual listener may not. It’s a shame, as Adrian’s solo albums number more than a dozen, and his work with other artists of our time is compelling.

To kick start his solo career, Adrian released a pair of incredibly creative, fun albums in the early 80’s – Lone Rhino (1982) and Twang Bar King (1983). These established Adrian’s love of both progressive and pop-rock forms, peppered with frequent use of distorted guitar patches to imitate animal sounds, industrial noisbelew_guitar1e such as trains and autos, to create frenetic leads, and color quieter pieces. His releases since, interspersed through the years with his other collaborations follow a varied path through many fascinating soundscapes. He is known for inventive technique on guitar and pliant, modern voice. It’s possible to forget he’s penned some of the best lyrics of our era – from “The Rail Song” to “Men in Helicopters” and “Inner Revolution,” which reflect on our times, our treatment of the planet, and just as often, very fun, positive and affirming prose.

belew_poster_serpentesdesignsAdrian’s work with other musicians, on their albums and concerts, include productive time with Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, and The Talking Heads, often guesting on the best of all works by that artist. Listen to his playing on career defining albums such as Graceland by Paul Simon, or Lodger by David Bowie, or Remain in Light by The Talking Heads for relevant examples of this charm. Besides his solo work, Adrian fronted his own happy pop band “The Bears” who were a blast to see live. But his primary work outside solo and bear efforts has been with King Crimson from 1980 to 2012, wherein his writing, vocals and duos with founder Robert Fripp on guitar are second to none. Adrian’s kind heart, sense of drama balanced with humor and concern for the environment pervade his work and that of his collaborators.

On November 10th I talked to Adrian about his current band “The Power Trio” who has played with him about 8 years now, and discuss their current tour.

belew_signageDoug: Adrian, to begin, when the Power Trio just started out in 2006 we saw you play at the Carriage house (a small theater in Saratoga, California.) I recall the sound was so loud, and the playing so aggressive that you cleared out first three rows within ten minutes – do you remember that night?

Adrian: (laughs) – I do remember that – those were people who subscribed to the concert series – who came to the shows no matter who was playing!

Doug: It remains true that these shows are definitely of the hard rocking variety – presenting very driven versions of your work. What’s led to that approach – no piano, no winds – a trio?

belew_julie_slickAdrian: I really wanted to work in a trio format – it allows each member more freedom, and more responsibility at the same time. And consequently in doing that, to do material that was not originally in that format, you have to fill the holes pretty well – I don’t think of it as “hard” as much as powerful and a bit exciting!

Doug: Agreed – Back then the power trio was Julie Slick (bass) plus her brother Eric on drums?

belew_tobias_ralphAdrian: Yes, he was our drummer for the first four years – now for the last four years we’ve had Tobias Ralph who has worked out absolutely perfectly for us. We really love Tobias. Considering this band has done so much touring inside the US and all over the world we’ve really come together – you feel like these guys must have been playing as a trio forever cause that’s how it feels.

Doug: What should we expect for the new shows?

Adrian: We’ve changed the format for this tour – it’s pretty new and I’ve never done it before – there’s new music coming out on FLUX – it’s a music app – its music that is never the same twice. The music changes at a fairly rapid rate then is interrupted by other things and keeps moving in different ways changing constantly.

So we’ve applied that idea to these live performances. We’ve dug through my catalog and pulled out songs from among 14 records, all from different eras, but we don’t play the whole song most of the time, we’ll play a portion of it and just when you least expect it that will be interrupted by a sound or something called a “snippet” and then it will move into the next song. So in the show we do something like 30 songs and I sing 25 songs (laughs) so it’s a romp through my whole career.

belew_power_trioDoug: How do you pick things for the set list like that – it must be hard to choose from so much work

Adrian: We have plans that over time we are going to build in mini sets – I look at them as blocks. Let’s say you might put 5 songs together and in between the songs there might be 4 or 5 things that cut the song off and then the next song starts immediately – maybe that’s 10 minutes long. What I want to do over time with the trio is build a lot of these blocks – we can shift them in and out of the show and get more and more material – Crimson, Bowie, Zappa, and tons of solo stuff – so much to choose from.

Doug: Set lists I’ve seen include a lot from your solo work and from King Crimson – ever thought of doing a show that’s just made up of songs from all the artists you’ve worked with?

Adrian: I could do that! What we do on this tour is we take a break for 15 minutes in the show. During that intermission, and before and after the show we play the other artists I’ve worked with– whether Crash Test Dummies or Paul Simon’s Graceland – it’s a good way to remind people of the whole picture.

belew_musicheadDoug: I noticed Mr. Music Head (1989) was left out of the set – is it just too different given the piano driven songs?

Adrian: I’m going to find a way in the future to tackle those – maybe just having a keyboard beside me. So much of that record was written around the piano and there’s a reason why. I had bought a house in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and it came with a piano – first time in my life I had one. That whole record was based on me just sitting there every day just figuring out the piano. So you’ve got a lot of songs like “Bad Days” and “Motor Bungalow” that really are piano songs – really difficult to play on guitar – I’ve got to play them on another tour!

Doug: It’s a big favorite including songs like “Peaceable Kingdom,” “Bad Day”, “Motor Bungalow” and others.

Adrian: I had played the piano before but never owned one so I could sit down gather my thoughts and compose with it, so it was really a thrill. I remember when I wrote the song “Bad Days,” I sat there and played that song 4 days in a row all day long – I was just fascinated that I’d finally written a piano song!

Doug: “Big Blue Sun” (from Inner Revolution (1992)) has that same sunny feel and I noticed it in an early set list.

belew_vocalAdrian: We tried that out but pulled it from the set– it’s very difficult to sing. I’ve got to be careful I don’t put too many difficult songs in the list because I realize our tour has a lot of shows. I’m singing 25 songs a night – it’s about as far as I could take it!

Doug: Another one I noticed on the list – “Men in Helicopters” (from Young Lions (1990)) – a big favorite – that one must be special to you.

Editor: the lyrics to this track are heartfelt and impactful:

Wouldn’t it be great
To see the African plains
Before they lay them to waste
And only the bones remain?

 

Adrian: It really is one of my personal favorites – once again a difficult one to sing so what were doing is just the first two verses of it. So its kind of nice I can go that far without exhausting my voice every night – you feel like you’ve heard the song – you’re reminded of it and it’s enough you know – its fun in that way. I miss having songs like that in our set, so the new approach is a way to do that.

Doug: Another early favorite is “The Rail Song” (from Twang Bar King)

Adrian: I’ve got to work that one out in the future – it’s a different guitar tuning – hard to switch guitars just for that song – but I will work that one out because it’s another perennial favorite for myself, and my wife likes that one a lot.

Doug: I was wondering about FLUX – you are using it for new material – are you adapting your earlier songs for it as well?

belew_guitar2Adrian: If FLUX is accepted well enough and becomes a legitimate form, which I can continue – and I really hope that happens – I always thought there might be another version – like FLUX “classic.” That version would go back to the old catalog, to take it apart and put it back together in different ways. You would hear songs but they would sound different than they did originally. Here’s the thing about FLUX – you can do as many versions of the song as you want – you actually need to do that as it requires lots of content. I was thinking the other day how interesting it is that an artist does a song and that’s it – that’s the song –you can never hear it another way – that’s it’s only life. My idea is that in the future I’ll give all those songs a whole new dressing up – that might be a second version of FLUX.

Doug: And the FLUX platform includes visuals as well.

Adrian: There’s so much that can happen with the visual aspect to this. The original idea was only a musical one and I had that idea for several decades. But how to actually do it was eluding me, because there was no technical way to approach it. Once we decided that we could develop an app – that opened the door to the visuals – since you play it on your iPhone or iPad or Android and you don’t want to be looking at a blank screen. So that introduced a whole new set of variables into this that are very cool – we are loving it! I’m a visual artist – I think musically in visual terms as I write so now that we’ve got these interesting creative things going on, and they are as random as the music – it’s a confluence of events.

Doug: I’ve been collecting video content – lots on Youtube but also on media. You are in a lot of these shows – from Bowie 1978, and his Sound and Vision tour 1990 – to the Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and The Bears and Crimson of course – but is there video from your solo career hidden in a vault somewhere?

belew_and_julieAdrian: No I don’t think so –most of the time if I worked in a video format we used any footage because it was costly. If you go out of your way to do something visual you want to use it. Nowadays of course its not expensive – everyone’s used to people filming and taking photos with iPhones.   Back in the day with MTV I did not do many videos because they were costly. The “Big Electric Cat” video won an award for the effect they used – the filmmakers loved the song and tried out this new technique and it worked – that was very early days. But MTV turned out to be so huge and corporate it seemed to me that people who didn’t have a $200k budget were not allowed in the door – it left me out in the cold. Even if I had that kind of money I don’t know if I would want to do that – I would rather spend it on creating new music or playing music for someone.

Doug: Looking at the Kickstarter campaign for FLUX I noticed you offered to come to a contributor’s home to tell stories and play live – that sounded like an awesome offer –and no one took you up on it!

Adrian: As we looked at campaigns and things to do we decided to try it – I would have done it if it sold. I like my fans and I like to engage with them – going out and meeting and talking with them. The campaign went well though – we didn’t know what kind of goal to set – FLUX has cost a lot – the point of doing Kickstarter was more getting people to know about it. There are a lot of people out there who know Kickstarter but don’t know me – so in a sense it was more for that – we will utilize the money we made to improve FLUX and make it better.

Doug: Will you be offering the FLUX platform to other artists?

belew_happyAdrian: Yeah that’s a possibility – its not something we’ve planned out – would love other people to take to it and enjoy it – it’s a great artistic platform. I don’t have a plan as to how that might happen but am hoping it does. I’ve always believed that the concept of FLUX – of things never repeating themselves – short random bursts – could be applied to other art forms – especially film – its already the way people make TV commercials somewhat – so my other hope is that this idea will spread into other areas. For me it requires a lot of content so its very time consuming – you can’t just take 10 songs and turn it into FLUX like you can a record. But for people who are prolific or have a lot of ideas or people who have an ADD approach to their creativity or people who have a large catalog – any of those types of situations – if you have a lot of information then FLUX is a wonderful way to present it.

Doug: Okay, last one is a King Crimson question – we saw the new incarnation of the band recently. The new group played a lot of older tracks besides the 2-3 songs you guys used to play since 1980. Back then was it Robert who did not want to go deep and play much off the 1970’s albums – or was that your position as well?

Adrian: I was a huge fan of all the early music but I was a champion of “new” so I was with Robert on that in the sense that it was a very different band with completely different vocabularies so it didn’t seem right to me to be going back and playing “In the Court of the Crimson King” or something like that. I think now that’s what he wants to be doing so he’s gone back to that period and it makes sense that I’m not a part of it because I wasn’t a part of it then. So when he told me about it I said, well if you’re not doing the music that I was a part of or wrote or co-wrote then I have no bone with any of it. If you’re doing more of the later music though then I think I should be there. In a sense he made the determination to go back to the beginning – I heard good things about it so am happy it all worked out.

Adrian’s tour winds it’s way through the U.S. this year. A few nights after this discussion, we caught up with the tour in San Francisco at the Chapel Theater, on November 12, 2014.

belew_indisciplineThe show was astounding – powerful and exciting as promised.  Adrian did in fact “romp” through his catalog, playing the style that will be served up by his FLUX platform. Songs would begin and end with transitions to and from other songs –or sometimes to a snippet of sound – be it random distortion, animal noises, or a bridge to the next track. As an example, Adrian led into the song “Elephant Talk” at the fourth verse “Debates, discussions, these are words with a D this time.” After that verse, one chorus and a solo, Adrian switched to the next track within the “block.” Most of the show consisted of these blocks – song snippets and interludes, though several tracks were played in their seemingly complete form, such as “Indiscipline” which allowed drummer Tobias Ralph a ripping solo prior to the first verse. It was a completely unique way to create a set list – covering a lot of history – and managing to give one the satisfaction of hearing so many favorites.

Of course, the playing itself was terrific. Adrian incorporated his trademark techniques, and his voice is undiminished. Julie stood out on several tracks, with rapid, dexterous moves and attitude. Tobias was just amazing – very often creating a fuller sound than the original tracks with dense fills on a musically tuned kit. And as promised, before and after the show, and during the intermission, we heard recordings from most of the artists who have collaborated with Adrian over the years – a welcome soundtrack as we anticipated the opportunity to catch this artist at work.