Andreas Vollenweider is the Swiss genius who gently plucks the electroacoustic harp with such feeling and with such beautiful tones, that he manages in just a few bars to conjure up everything good about the genre of music known as New Age. Next to brilliant keys composer Kit Watkins, he ranks top of the class in this, his chosen art.
Andreas hasn’t been to the states for a very long time, much less, in his native Europe as he’s long been working on new material, for which we are waiting with great expectations. Let’s hope he returns soon.
My wife Artina and I have been “on a tear” over the last decade catching bands and individual musicians in concert wherever the appear – locally in San Francisco or Los Angeles if possible, but if the closest a favorite band plays happens to be on the east coast, New York, Boston, Philly, etc. we will make the trip. We’ve done this for U2 (360 tour), Billy Crystal (one-man show), The Cure, PFM, and many others. We were fortunate over the last three years to have multiple reasons to go to the U.K. — home of my heart as it comes to music. We saw Simple Minds do their early album cuts at the Roundhouse, Kate Bush at the Odean for one of here 22 rare comeback performances, Stone Roses in the park, and, importantly my hero Rick Wakeman performing his masterwork Six Wives at the castle of Henry VIII, and his Arthurian Legend Redux at the O2. We even saw Artina’s favorite-ever singer/saxman Van Morrison in Lugano – what a blessing. It’s been expensive, certainly a luxury, and I owe it all to my last job at Splunk. I think we’ve “done it all” so to say – not sure as we peruse the list of bands we’ve loved, that another would draw us over the pond again.
Having said that (never say never – a lesson well learned from Sean Connery) I was looking through my hundreds of concert DVDs – yes I’m THAT guy) and slipped in the concert film of Andreas this morning. It’s brilliant, heartfelt, beautiful, as with all of his work. Then I checked his website, and it appears that, at least as of September last year, he plans a new release and tour. If he does that and does not come to the states, we will travel once again. If it is to be in Switzerland, which would not raise a complaint from this fan, then maybe an evening in Interlaken, Zermatt, or Lugano? Please Mr. Vollenweider!
The other main things to report, after I took quite a break from writing:
LCD Soundsystem, the brilliant, Talking-Heads-ish electro-indie band, sold three nights at the Greek Berkeley – gotta go
Steven Wilson is back at the Fillmore in May – his concerts are second-to-none
Bananarama plays in February, as does Robert Plant – certainly two ends of the musical spectrum!?!?
Best yet, the Dixie Dregs have reunited the original lineup, and are playing all over California in April – more on that to come
In a year that saw the sad loss of so many musical artists, entertainers and sports heroes, there was concurrently much to celebrate, as go on we must. For this patron, there were more than two-dozen amazing classic, progressive, or goth/new wave rock concerts by legendary artists, along with some fantastic shows from more recent bands that carry the torch of rock in all of its forms.
These are a holy trinity of artists that together comprise most of the core members of Yes. First up, Mr. Wakeman absolutely nailed his one-time performance of the King Arthur album redux at the O2 earlier this year, with orchestra, choir and narration. Then, the Steve Howe / Geoff Downes led version of Yes arrived to faithfully play renditions of half the double album Tales From Topographic Oceans paired with Drama, which sounded fantastic live. But the capper was seeing ARW who played Howe and Rabin era Yes music with a fever that brings a new appreciation to the work. It was a heartwarming, wonderful experience to see Jon Anderson so happy, and sounding as good as any night I’ve witnessed in over 20 years. This topped the year off in style.
In the Genesis camp, while we wait for Phil, Mike and Tony to put something together, we always have Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel as working musicians – the former working often, the latter not so much! Hackett has been absolutely on fire, both during his Genesis Revisited performances, and with his solo work. The night we saw him here in San Francisco at the Warfield was by far, and I am not padding here, the best show I’ve seen from him since Wind & Wuthering. His renditions of classic songs from the Genesis catalog, along with his first four albums, and newer work from Wolflight, have never been bested. He is my true prog hero. Gabriel went out with Sting this year, in a fun and pleasant show – different for him – I think both better on their own, but it was nice to see the camaraderie. Chills when Sting teased us with the first few bars of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.” Chills.
The Cure on this year’s tour played crowd-pleasing set lists that changed each night, with a core of consistent selections from their most popular mid period work. The band played several tracks off Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), Disintegration (1989), which included career highlights “Lullaby,” “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You,” about which my daughter says “If you wanted to play one song to someone who did not know The Cure’s music, this would be it – so sad but beautiful.” Truer words. The other featured album was Wish (1992) from which the band pulled off a most unexpected pleasure, set closer “End.” Leader Robert Smith’s uncanny way of putting words to music, making the sum of the two something more than its parts, awakening dread, a cry for help, and ultimately survival, even transcendence is unparalleled. And, fortunately for us, he is a survivor and, as seen this year in concert, he continues to thrive, in apparently good health and surprisingly strong voice.
Watch for The Cure in my next book, should this sell out!
Witnessing Gilmour rock and roll at the Hollywood Bowl was 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. On this night, Gilmour seemed on fire, grinding out his brand of searing guitar solos gracefully, matching his alternately gravelly and silky smooth voice. He absolutely owned the stage, and the moment, blowing away this crowd of Angelinos, young and old alike.
This band performed at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, August 5th, 2016 to an anxiously awaiting crowd, once again taking their place a the top of the electro-funk pantheon, delivering an explosive concert consisting of 14 tracks that were also played at their “farewell” concert five years ago at Madison Square Gardens, chronicled in the exceptional film Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011) and the live album Live at Madison Square Gardens. The music as presented was incredibly tight, each musician playing his or her part with aplomb. Their songs progress, contrapuntal lines are drawn, the beat is intensified, bass, guitar or treated electronics are added, until the drone or melody comes clear and captivating, and Murphy adds vocals, working his rich baritone, ultimately building into ecstatic abandon. This is the main recipe for the band, and it’s done wonders for space rock, afro funk, new wave and alt/indie bands past and present. See this band in 2017 if you possibly can.
Seeing ELO last September 10, 2016, on the second of three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl was like stepping back in time, as Lynne, band, and orchestra faithfully replicated every note of the original ELO compositions, along with a few newer tracks from Lynne’s most recent album. At around 80 minutes, incredibly, nearly every track on the set list was originally a hit or at least massively popular FM radio staple for ELO, including “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Telephone Line,” “Turn to Stone” and on through seventeen songs, ending inevitably with “Roll Over Beethoven,” which as one would expect, highlighted the immense contribution of the Hollywood Bowl orchestra let by conductor Thomas Wilkins while fireworks lit the night sky.
Coldplay brought their A Head Full Of Dreams Tour to our 49ers (Levi’s) stadium in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco this year, and they will be back in 2017. It was an amazing night of lights, confetti, stagecraft, and music, courtesy of Chris Martin and band. Followers of Coldplay take no issue with their often-sentimental lyrics and gut-wrenching delivery by heartthrob Martin. I’ve read some number of critics who are dismissive of this band and their music exclaiming, “There’s no crying in a rock concert!”. Fair enough, Coldplay’s songs veer towards “adult contemporary,” with few gritty guitar licks, in favor of acoustic guitar and piano. This is, after all the man who very publicly decided to undergo a “conscience uncoupling” with ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, then penned a song called “Fun” featuring the lyrical refrain “Didn’t we have fun” to honor what they had together. Very adult…and, excellent!
We saw Adele this year, yes we did! It was truly amazing – what a talent. Her voice was in perfect shape. The songs she close spanned her catalog sounding as good as or better than the original studio versions. Adele generally stood in place, whether main or b stage, swaying or turning a bit while her image was projected on front and rear stage screens to get everyone in the audience a great view. What was unexpected for this uninitiated punter is just how personable and funny Adele is. She greeted fans warmly, even pulling one couple on stage for selfies. She told stories from different points in her career, often in a self-deprecating way that was very endearing. There was a lot of this between song chatter, but it never wore thin, particularly since so many of her tracks are melancholic, a fact Adele herself pointed out, admitting that a lot of her songs are depressing. Yet there were enough upbeat songs in the playlist, and between those and the banter, there was a celebratory air in the room.
We caught the most recent, maybe last tour, of the Who, one which comes at the heels of the seminal band’s 50th anniversary, and wherein they ”play the hits.” The Who, after a delay a several months, made it to the Oakland Arena here in the San Francisco Bay Area last week on May 19, 2016. The delay was due to health issues with singer Roger Daltrey, which involve his voice, limiting his ability to sing on consecutive nights, causing quite a logistical challenge during the tour. The show was fabulous. Daltry is still in fantastic shape, a real inspiration for clean living and fitness! Townsend still hits his vocal marks and his guitar technique is immaculate. Though he understandably does not leap into the air as in times past, he still executes his windmill-arm attack on the frets mightily. And he has attitude to spare. We were lucky recipients!
Of the many rock groups in the 70s that strove to stage a theatrical performance, Alice Cooper stands among those that invested significant time and energy in the pursuit. “We were trying to create something that hadn’t been done. And what hadn’t been done is nobody took the lyrics and brought them to life…. you use the stage as a canvas. It’s all vaudeville and burlesque” according to Cooper. The man brought his crack band, stage props, dancers and costumes to San Francisco this year. While much of the stagecraft has been presented consistently throughout the years, the show is amazingly well rehearsed yet still fresh — a sonic and visual success. Musically, this was a straight-on hard-rocking show, highlighting the chops of the band’s three guitarists, most notably L.A. resident Nita Strauss, whose searing solos and flowing blonde hair punctuated many of the most metal-laden tracks. Cooper sustained his own still-intact gravelly vocals from start to finish, enthralling the crowd as the well-fashioned master of macabre ceremonies. The set list was peppered with some deep cuts and many hits like “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” along with encore “Elected” during which Cooper made a fairly good case for his election to U.S. President, as a third-party candidate fronting the “Wild Party.” If only he had actually run and won!
Bad 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. This show, which included opener Joe Walsh, was absolutely amazing. Importantly Paul Rodgers has kept himself and his voice in perfect shape, and the band is as tight as ever, pinned down by Simon Kirke’s “rock steady” percussion. Catch this band while you can!
Roger Hodgson performed again this year in the states to audiences of adoring fans. Our show down at Coachella was a heart rending, spiritual journey through a bit of Hodgson’s fine solo work, topping a generous helping of the songs he wrote for the band Supertramp. Hodgson was in fine voice, still able to hit all those soaring high notes, and also waxing philosophical between the hits and deep cuts, which included four from my favorite, Crisis? What Crisis? He spoke plainly and warmly about the meaning of these songs, to him and to others, sometimes reading notes he’s received from fans or sharing his thoughts about how music can bring back memories, and heal troubled spirits. Truer words.
Styx is a Chicago based rock band that released nearly a dozen records from the start of their most enduring lineup in 1972, through 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. Three multi-talented singer-songwriters Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards, accordion), Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), and James Young (vocals, guitars, keyboards), backed by brothers John Panozzo (drums) and Chuck Panozzo (basses) penned a dramatic blend of rock and pop that placed them in league with stateside brethren Kansas and Journey. This author caught the group on tour supporting the Pieces of Eight album on January 27 1978 at the Long Beach arena. It was an exciting, powerful presentation, featuring a tight performance that showcased the soaring vocal prowess and instrumental credentials of each principal musician. As of the time of this writing Shaw and Young represent Styx on annual tours while DeYoung tends to his solo career. We saw the Shaw/Young band this year and several times this decade and every time they were absolutely fantastic!
The band Ambrosia was founded in southern California in the early 1970s. Today they would be best known for their most popular albums Life Beyond L.A., and One Eighty each including a mega-hit single, respectively “How Much I Feel” and “You’re The Only Woman (You & I).” These hits highlighted the group’s more melodic tendencies. However, their first two albums, and much of their unjustly overlooked fifth and final release Road Island would be best filed under the progressive rock heading. Ambrosia was back on tour this year, and we caught their exceptional show in Pleasanton, California on Saturday January 23rd. Last year we caught cofounder David Pack who also continues to perform solo shows amongst many other pursuits in the music business. These musicians remain at the top of their game, and it’s been amazing to see them perform again.
Special mention goes to Ian Anderson’s multi-media concert about the original Jethro Tull – very innovative use of filmed sequences which help with the vocals and storyline – and, I finally got to meet Ian, one of my musical heroes! Jethro Tull of course features in my book as well, focusing on their 1973 epic, A Passion Play!
Other shows this year that were similarly fantastic included Bryan Ferry, Radiohead, The Specials, X, Ra Ra Riot, American Football, Beach House, St. Germain, Album Leaf and Steven Wilson, who made a final victory lap in support of Hand.Cannot.Erase. All in all a big year for live music!
Every once in awhile a band comes to town and completely conquers the stage, leaving a wake of ecstatic fans behind. LCD Soundsystem is one such case, as they performed at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, August 5th, 2016 to an anxiously awaiting crowd, once again taking their place at the top of the electro-funk pantheon, delivering an explosive dance party via 14 perfectly chosen tracks. Every song on the set list was played at their “farewell” concert five years ago at Madison Square Gardens, chronicled in the exceptional film Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011) and audio album Live at Madison Square Gardens. Many of us who came to know LCD after the “farewell” tour have cherished that film and live release as it perfectly captured how astoundingly great this band’s live shows had been. Fortunately they hewed closely to that winning formula last weekend at Golden Gate Park.
For this show, the stage was just a bit tighter than before, the band squeezed into a small space in the center, all manner of drums, percussion, electronic keyboards, and room for half dozen crack musicians with lead man, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist James Murphy up front, and able to wander the small passages between. Crammed in with all that gear, the presentation seemed somehow intimate, despite the huge audience of over 60,000 at the festival. It was from start to finish, one of the best concerts of the millennia to date.
LCD Soundsystem, as described by writer and musician Nick Sylvester is “the sound of a man digging himself out of his own skull… an extremely smart and sensitive man wrestling his inner Klosterman” (by the way, Klosterman is a quirky American author and essayist who writes thoughtfully about American popular culture). This gets at the heart of why these confessional, observational songs speak to so many, songs like “Losing My Edge,” sporting these lyrics:
I’m losing my edge
I was there.
I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids.
I played it at CBGB’s.
Everybody thought I was crazy
On the studio albums, nearly everything you hear is played by Murphy – in concert he has a troupe of musicians, changing at times based on availability. It’s amazing really, because as the music is presented, it’s incredibly tight, each musician playing his or her part with precision, in unity. The best of their songs start with a beat, sometimes laid down by a drum machine, but more often by steady drummer Pat Mahoney, sometimes by a keyboard sequence triggered or played by Nancy Whang or Gavin Russom. As the song progresses, additional contrapuntal lines are drawn, the beat is intensified, bass, guitar or treated electronics are added, until the drone or melody comes clear and captivating, and Murphy adds vocals, working his rich baritone and quavering top-end. Interlocking riffs are added or taken away to change the dynamics, which ultimately build into ecstatic abandon. This is the main recipe for the band, and it’s done wonders for space rock, afro funk, new wave and alt/indie bands past and present. The most frequent touch point I could think of was the Talking Heads, Remain in Light era work with Brian Eno – or more recently the kind of dynamics mastered by Arcade Fire (who opened for them at that last Madison Square Gardens show, and for whom Murphy co-produced the album Reflektor). Murphy stirs it all up and makes something new and unique. It’s beautiful frenetic dance music that’s utterly irresistible.
The aforementioned film, Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011) directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is as spectacular a concert movie as any in my collection. The entire three-and-a-half show is captured, along with interviews and a portrait of James Murphy as he prepares for the event, intended to be their last. The shoot is clearly professional, multiple camera angles fixed and handheld, both close-up and long/wide provide viewers with a bird’s eye perspective, illuminating how the large band works together to create the whole. The show kicks off with three of their best songs “Dance Yrself Clean,” “Drunk Girls,” and “I Can Change.” At the end of those tracks, at 20 minutes into the film, you’ll know if this music is for you – don’t be surprised if you’re singing “I Can Change” over and over again for days, such is it’s status as an alluring ear-worm! At the end of the film, as Murphy croons the slow burner “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” staring and smiling wistfully at the sell-out crowd while the balloons fall from the rafters, it’s impossible not to feel a bit sentimental, a bit of loss for their disbandment. Fortunately for the music world, Murphy and his collaborators are back. Let’s hope they remain, on record, and in lights.
Video: All My Friends (from Madison Square Gardens)