Tag Archives: music

Beck on Point

Beck Colors Album CoverWe’ve seen indie artist Beck several times over the last couple decades and the shows have been a bit uneven; usually presenting a mixed bag of songs that emphasize whatever is most top of mind for this diverse artist, and often with Beck himself seeming a bit disconnected from the proceedings. Not so on this fantastic night July 14th2019 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Beck was in absolute top form, commanding attention as “front man” and master of ceremonies. Beck sang, played his guitars, and danced – yes danced, skillfully and infectiously for the rapturous crowd.

Beck 2019 3 144dpi

The core of the set on this night put emphasis on Beck’s upbeat, groovy tunes, including “Girl,” “Mixed Bizness” and “Up All Night.” The latter was one of three songs plucked from 2017’s Colors, a very up-tempo record for Beck, often calling to mind 70s disco music, and it set the celebratory tone for the whole show. A glance through the set list, with albums and dates credited, shows a balanced pick of tracks from “Loser” 1993 to the new single from this year, “Saw Lightning.”  With just this one new song to promote (the next album Hyperspaceis not yet released) this show, though a bit short at 75 minutes, ended up as a sort of mini greatest hits compilation, with 14 of his own songs, and a handful of covers, ranging from the touching The Korgis cover “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime” to the Rolling Stones “Miss You,” and Chic’s disco hit “Good Times.” Several of the covers fell at the end of the set; just after Cage The Elephant’s lead singer Matt Schultz joined Beck on stage for their collaboration “Night Running.” Having not been wowed by Cage’s set, or Schultz, these fans found solace in the fact that Beck absolutely nailed just over a dozen of his greatest songs.

Beck 2019 2 144dpi

The production was stellar. It included rear projections, and a dazzling, colorful light show, which made ample use of geometric shapes, lasers and rich vibrant tones. One of the clever rear projections included live shots of the musicians from directly above their heads, projected just behind each, and was artfully done. Sound was fantastic – balanced, not over loaded with bass as can happen with this era of music.

Beck Setlist 144dpi

The bands Cage the Elephant, Spoon, and Starcrawler opened for Beck. For these fans, only Spoon was of interest, and they delivered, squinting in the hot sun through a short set that emphasized lead singer/guitarist Britt Daniel’s vocal prowess and riff-driven songs, following a release this year of their greatest hits.

Beck began his career with a long search for something that would set him on a proper course, and lift him from a poverty with which he had learned to cope, playing folk songs on the street for cash. It was clear on this night that Beck is still on that restless journey, one that he has paused along the way, to pay particular attention to various forms of rock, folk, pop and even disco music. We felt lucky to be part of this very upbeat detour, part of the “good times!”

Beck Echo

p.s. it’s worth noting that Beck also recently appeared in a very good documentary film, Echo in the Canyon, which featured Jakob Dylan leading a cast of guest musicians through the L.A. Laurel Canyon songbook from the mid sixties when bands like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mama’s and the Poppas, The Beach Boys, and CSN brought folk rock to the masses. Beck performs on several songs in a tribute concert that includes Dylan as bandleader, joined by Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Nora Jones and others. It’s a heartfelt tribute to these bands, and an excellent film in general for any fan of rock and folk music.

Voices of the ’80s

RF_BackstageThe rock music world changed drastically with the explosive introduction of punk music in 1977. Punk was a raw form of popular rock; one that, for a short time, abandoned studied virtuosity in favor of pure aggressive energy, four chords, sneers and volume. For classic and progressive rock bands of the 1970’s, the punk movement threatened to end their time in the spotlight. More importantly, it was the lightening rod to which a great number of new bands drew close, splintering and absorbing the energy into a multitude of unique genre acts.

Suddenly, it seemed that popular music could take nearly any form, go in any direction. A college degree in music theory was not needed. Alongside the punk upstarts, the Sex Pistols, The Ramones, X, The Clash and The Dead Kennedys, there emerged many acts that were difficult to categorize. In the states, the CBGB club crowd included The Talking Heads and Blondie, joined elsewhere by bands like Devo, Oingo Boingo, and the new southern sound out of Georgia from REM and The B-52’s.  Australia/New Zealand produced a few bands, most notably Split Enz, who along with their states-side CBGB peers, paved the way for the kind of quirky music that came out of this era. In England, a major wave of trendy bands, covering both the lighter and darker side of music emerged at light speed. Suddenly, Ska music, originally from Jamaica, sprang forth from bands like The Specials, Madness, and The English Beat. Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow adapted tribal beats and chants as the basis of their unique sound. Gothic music, driven by Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen and a handful of darker, brooding bands emerged from the darkness. Synth pop and new wave music brought new forms of dance music to the fore, most often draped in layers of synthesizer leads, and the then new sound of drum machines. It seemed all barriers were broken.

RF_Annabella3

What was so different for those of us who transitioned from classic rock to these new bands, was that many, whether punk, ska, new wave, or gothic were not so much bands you listened to but bands you danced to. Many of these groups became the “new disco” – the groups whose music filled clubs and concert halls. In general these bands called you to the floor, with relentless beats, metronomic precision, deep bass tones, and all manner of vocalists who performed the work and connected to fans. And in each market, somewhere on the radio dial, there emerged stations willing to play this new music, to make it their preferred content, constantly introducing audiences to new bands, a flood of which appeared from 1977 to 1985.

RF_Kajagoogoo

Since the advent of the pop music form, there has always been “one hit wonders” – singers or bands that had brief success in their own time. The 1980’s had a fair share of these acts, which came and went quickly, whose sound was so unique, fitting into the trend of the year, fading shortly after. For a short time this led to the increasing popularity of singles – the ability to obtain a few songs from an artist on a 45rpm vinyl single, or for some, a single cassette tape. While bands like U2, The Pretenders, Simple Minds and Madonna built lifelong careers, many others faded, some of course undeservedly, others predictable.

RF_Outfield

Recently, I’ve noticed a number of travelling 1980’s “showcase” concerts, shows which are somewhat akin to small festivals, that present a number of what are today lesser known 80’s acts alongside one or two who held it all together and who are able to continue today to headline shows, even if in smaller theaters and clubs. One of these traveling circuses is Retro Futura, and this was this show I was drawn to in New York this last July.

RF_ModernEnglish

I was there principally to see Annabella Lwin, the lead singer from Bow Wow Wow, a surf-punk-meets-tribal-beats group that lived for a short time in the early 80’s. Bow Wow Wow released two albums before the boys in the band fired Annabella, their lead singer, a disaster of epic proportions for fans of the act. Amazingly, considering the level of talent in the original band, Annabella was at the bottom of the roster at this show. She was only allotted time to do three songs, after which she bolted to catch a plane. Still this was the best part of the lineup for me, made greater after I was able to get backstage to meet Ms. Lwin to express my appreciation to this artist, one of my favorite 80’s personalities. Bow Wow Wow will be prominently featured in my upcoming book, Dancing in Fog City (1977-1989).

RF_BelindaCarlisle1

The remaining acts on the roster included Limal (Christopher Hamill) from Kajagoogoo, Tony Lewis, the singer/bassist from The Outfield, four-fifths or the original band Modern English, Belinda Carlisle from the Go-Go’s and headliners ABC. Kajagoogoo was allotted time for four songs, none of which stirred this patron, including the too-coy “Too Shy Shy.” Follow up Outfield singer Tony Lewis strained to hit his notes. Modern English were quite acceptable, and at times a bit fun, as personalities shown through and musicianship was a notch above. This was the one band that featured predominantly original members.

RF_ABC1

The best part of the show, long after my favorite Annabella left the stage, was to be sets by Belinda Carlisle and ABC. Belinda was radiant, at 60 years old, still looking fab, and hitting all her marks and high notes with seeming ease. She rolled out a string of her own hits alongside expected highlights from the Go-Go’s first few albums, a small collection that has sustained members of this group, particularly Belinda through to today. ABC was the surprising set for me, as their whole presentation was befitting the headlining spot. Adorned in sharp suits and upbeat attitudes, the band began with “Millionaire,” the first of a number of hits most fans clearly remembered from the day, played with aplomb by the talented hired-hands led by charismatic singer Martin Fry.

Coming into the lineup, it was hard not to tag this tour as a collection of also-rans from the 80s. Indeed, every act other than Modern English was really the lead singer from their bands, each having had one or two albums back in the day, peppered with a few singles, and little follow up solo success. Yet, it was heartwarming to hear their voices again, stepping back in time to witness this singles crowd, harkening back to dancing days now so long ago.

The Fixx is In

The Fixx are one of the most unique bands to emerge during the 1980’s. They did not seem to fit the typical mold of their time, despite lots of great synth, tasty, treated guitar focused on chords rather than solos, and a talented vocalist with a range less commonly found in traditional “rock” music. Today they would be classified more as “rock” or “alternative” music than “new wave” yet back in the day they ultimately they did fit in with their peers and they absolutely excelled at their craft.

Fixx_2018_Vocals

Fixx_2018_RTB_CoverReach The Beach, released in 1983 was this band’s second album, and remains their most popular. It sported hits “One Thing Leads To Another” (their highest charting US Single at number 4) and “Saved By Zero,” accompanied by several other standout tracks and deep cuts that demonstrate the quiet determination of the band as stellar songsmiths and solid musicians. Personnel on this album included Cy Curnin (vocals), Rupert Greenall (keyboards), Jamie West-Oram (guitar), Adam Woods (drums) and a couple of bass players, Alfie Agius and Dan Brown, the latter of whom became the band’s official bassist for the tour and subsequent albums. The album was produced by the talented Rupert Hine. This is a very “listenable” album which flows nicely from track to track, stropping at some of their best ideas and greatest musical passages.

Fixx_2018_Violet

The intellectual lyrics of this band, delivered by lead vocalist Cy Curnin are a major part of what makes Reach The Beach, and the rest of their music so special and enduring. Cy is a deep thinker who will pose a question and hang on that question, each word counting towards the idea, often suggesting an answer. The lyrics are seldom overtly political yet there are messages, they are not preachy, but there are spiritual lessons within. Songs like “Are We Ourselves” and “Less Cities, More Moving People” always cause me to ponder meaning, messages, and my own reaction to them. Cy delivers all this in concert with occasional asides highlighting his current thinking – all questions that deserve to be asked and answered.

Fixx_2018_GuitarKeys

I first saw this band in 1983 at one of the last “Day On The Green” festivals in Oakland California. Famed producer and production company Bill Graham Presents staged these all-day festivals, and they were impressive lineups featuring multiple bands, who were well chosen to show off both headliners and supporting acts. On this summer day in 1983, headliners The Police was on their final tour, supporting their swan song “Synchronicity.” Behind them was The Fixx, taking that vaulted “2ndact” spot on the strength of their then new release Reach The Beach. Preceding The Fixx were a varied collection of new wave acts, The Thompson Twins, Oingo Boingo and Madness. The Fixx stood out that day, among these contemporaries, as a group of serious, adult musicians, primed for mainstream success yet seemingly comfortable at that vaulted #2 spot on the bill.

Fixx_2018_Orange

Last week, 35 years after that Day on the Green, the band played at The Independent club in San Francisco, on their Reach The Beach anniversary tour. They played the whole album, but in reverse order, which worked very nicely given the original record kicked off with four exceptional tracks in a row, making the reverse sequencing close the first half of the show with those highlights. The band continued with a collection of hits and deep cuts, including some newer work, as this enduring act continues to record and tour today, with the same lineup from 1983. It was an exceptional show that demonstrated to one and all the talents of the band. Quite a night, and highly recommended should The Fixx come your way.

Fixx_2018_Blue

Return of the Dixie Dregs

DixieDregs2018_6Dixie Dregs is an American band formed in the early 1970s by guitarist Steve Morse and bassist Andy West. Their music is almost exclusively instrumental, fusing rock, country, and a bit of jazz into a potent brew that is designed to showcase each band member’s virtuosity. Their core compositions were typically rooted in traditional country & western music, most frequently upbeat and exciting. Their live shows were absolutely fantastic. One of their signature and most entertaining feats in concert was a game of “musical chairs” where each musician would trade off soloing in round-robin fashion, taking leads for ever decreasing measures until each would play just one or so notes, passing from one to the next at lightning speed in an amazing display of talent. Musicians came and went from the Dixie Dregs, all of them exceptional, and founder Steve Morse has always been at the helm.

DIxieDregs_NOTLDCover_72dpiAfter two early albums, the band was signed to Capricorn Records and released their most progressive album What If(1978), produced by Ken Scott, featuring Morse and West joined by Rod Morgenstein (drums), Mark Parrish (keyboards), and Allen Sloan (violin). After completing their first tour that year, they combined a few of the live recordings and several new pieces to create their most popular Grammy nominated album, 1979’s Night of the Living Dregs. The opening track “Punk Sandwich,” is a perfect introduction to the band for any fan or casual listener. Rapid-fire guitar and violin leads backed by electric organ bridge the tuneful melody. The second track “Country House Shuffle” leads off with a drum solo that demonstrates Morgenstein’s apt skills. The second half of the record is punctuated by the live track “The Bash” which demonstrates one of the country-western jams that featured their signature round-robin solos. I caught the band live on this tour at some small venue in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles and it was a spectacular show from the first note to the last.

DixieDregs2018_4

The band signed with Arista at the end of the 70s, and released an excellent follow up album, Dregs of the Earth(1980) with the talented T. Lavitz replacing departed Mark Parrish on keys. I was fortunate to see this tour as well at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, and recall being surprised that Lavitz was able to meet the challenge set by their former keys wizard. It was another exceptional concert experience.

DixieDregs2018_5

Widespread success eluded the Dixie Dregs, though they managed to build a core following of eager admirers. As the eighties wore on, the group hoped to expand their audience by changing their name to The Dregs, after which they released Unsung Heroes(1981) and Industry Standard(1982) the latter with guest vocalists. Soon after they disbanded but have continued to stage concerts sporadically to this day. Steve Morse plied his axe during a short solo career, and also took on lead guitar duties in years since with Kansas and then Deep Purple.

DixieDregs2018_1

So it was with only mild surprise that I saw an ad for the Dixie Dregs reunion, which we attended in Agoura California, at the Canyon Club last month. The show featured a new keyboard and saxophone player, Steve Davidowski, who joined original members Steve, Andy, Allen and Rod. The show was fantastic in every way. Morse had his hand wrapped in what looked like an injury support brace, but nothing was taken off the top of his incredible range and dexterity. Everyone played at the top of their game.

DixieDregs2018_3

During the run up to these shows, I heard from guys who still live in their mother’s basement, you know them, the ones who complain like “why are these old dudes out on the road again with no new material?” As if to prove any naysayers wrong, Morse and co. came to the stage on fire, nailing their leads with aplomb, showing one and all that there was and IS an instrumental band so adept at their chosen instruments, that they simply stun, even if their music was never heard before by the listener.

DixieDregs2018_2

To top off the experience for me, I was able to hand Steve a copy of my book, Rockin’ the City of Angels, which has a chapter on the Dixie Dregs, released last year. And while I was thanking him, I got a big surprise, one that made me burst into tears. Someone behind me exclaimed “Doug Harr?” as if they knew me. It was my long lost childhood buddy Marcus Ryle, the one in our neighborhood with the cool dad, the engineer, the cool siblings, and some real keyboards. Marcus’ dad introduced us to Moog synth music before Keith Emerson, regaling us with Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’s classical synth albums, and in particular the legendary Dick Hyman and his fanciful synth pop. Marcus was the first in our neighborhood to get his own synth and as it turns out, as I learned, went on to design them, and eventually same for guitars, sporting the Line 6 guitars at Yamaha. I will finally see him, now back from Japan, next week. Good times. Rock on.

 

Steven Wilson Plays To The Bone

Steven Wilson brought his To The Bone tour to the Fillmore auditorium in San Francisco last week. It was another in a series of amazing concerts given by this gifted man and his amazing band.

StevenWilson2018_Solo

To begin the show, as is the norm at Wilson’s events, a short film was used to “warm up” the audience. However, in past years, while the films have been haunting, melancholy bits of dirge, this year the content was thought provoking, and not exactly obtuse – a bit more Talking Heads, a bit less Dario Argento. Wilson is on a new bent these days, one where his music is more straightforward, a bit less melancholy, a bit more pop. Nonetheless, dramatic subject matter and skilled performances anchored the concert, and it was exceptional.

StevenWilson2018_Image

In order to punctuate his slightly altered musical direction, Wilson stopped between songs to say a few things about the difference between PROG and POP music. How “pop” was the original rock music, and how there should be no distain for pop, in comparison to it’s more complex, uptight brethren PROG:

“pop music has a very fine tradition… the greatest pop group of all time were The Beatles – you would not call them a rock band, you would call them a pop band. Second greatest pop band was Abba – does anyone here not like the Beatles and Abba?  You see ergo everyone likes pop music. …Pop music is not SHIT!”

StevenWilson2018_Wilson

After this bit of pep, he asked the audience to dance (yes dance) to his new song, “Permanating,” a nice song in the pop genre, it must be agreed. Of the new songs, by the way, “People Who Eat Darkness” and “The Same Asylum As Before” were particularly muscular and memorable. “Pariah,” the particularly melodic song which features singer Ninet Tayeb on record, was played with her image singing her parts on the front and rear screens – a very effective use of the silk that drapes down in front of the band for part of the show. Its amazing really how such a seemingly unassuming, quiet man can command a stage and rock the s___ out of a venerable venue such as the Fillmore.

StevenWilson2018_Solo

On this tour, the set list did not include stalwarts “The Raven Who Refused To Singand Drive Home” and that was disappointing for this fan, but it’s clear that Wilson is leaning in a bit happier direction. It must be said that the set list was a nice combination of older Porcupine Tree and newer Wilson solo work.

StevenWilson2018_Holtzman

As with earlier tours, the lighting techniques were clever and colorful. Sound was crisp and clear, reproduced by the top-notch audio system, which sounded amazing in the acoustic-friendly Fillmore. Even with all the finery, the primary focus remained on the band members demonstrating their virtuosic skills throughout. From the increasingly well-rehearsed touring band there were complex rhythms and solos from new guitar player Alex Hutchings, electronic textures and brisk synth leads from keyboard player Adam Holzman, and a deep, thunderous bottom end and vocal harmonies from Nick Beggs on basses, paired with skilled drummer Craig Blundell.  It was plainly visible that each one of the musicians has become exceedingly adept and delivering this material. Steven delivered his poetic lyrics throughout in fine voice, alternating skillfully between guitar, bass, keys and samples. He displayed his wit and thoughtfulness between tracks as lead raconteur. These elements combined to make up a masterful set; an evening of dramatic, inspirational and at times emotionally overwhelming rock and pop music. Wilson remains at the top of the list of artists I’ve seen over these now forty years with his accomplished, expressive body of work and ability to so expressively present it all live in concert.

StevenWilson2018_Beggs

Astounding, and wonderful is this artist. Check him out!

Andreas Vollenweider

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:

  1. LCD Soundsystem, the brilliant, Talking-Heads-ish electro-indie band, sold three nights at the Greek Berkeley – gotta go
  2. Steven Wilson is back at the Fillmore in May – his concerts are second-to-none
  3. Bananarama plays in February, as does Robert Plant – certainly two ends of the musical spectrum!?!?
  4. Best yet, the Dixie Dregs have reunited the original lineup, and are playing all over California in April – more on that to come
  5. Anything else I missed?

Midge Ure Returns

Oh the ravages of time… over the last several years, I’ve been picking up tickets to concerts by bands from the “New Wave” era as they do the rounds, whether they are out on the road again for the sheer joy of playing live, because they are out promoting new work, or just due to the fact that the rock industry has no retirement plan! Midge Ure, formerly of the British new wave band Ultravox, dropped by San Francisco to perform several times over the last 5 years. He returned to kick off 2017 with a two-piece band backup, delivering an assertively played set that highlighted a large number of popular ‘80s Ultravox songs along with a selection of solo work. It’s dubbed the Something From Everything Tour as the songs featured spanned Ure’s long career.

midgeure_tourad_72dpi

Many readers will be aware that there were two different frontmen who led Ultravox(!) during their life span. Early on the band was led by founder, singer Dennis Leigh (who took the stage name John Foxx). The early work by the band, while creative and oft compelling was not commercially successful and Foxx left before the dawn of the ‘80s to make a go as a solo artist. Midge Ure took the reigns on guitar and vocals, joining keyboard player Billy Currie with whom he worked in the band Visage. The band released Vienna in 1980, their fortunes grew, and they released four more albums before Ure called it a day and went on to begin his own solo career.

midgeureviena_72dpi

At last week’s San Francisco show, Ure was in good humor and fine voice, particularly considering how challenging his ‘80s vocal work is. A couple of years ago when I saw him solo at a small bar Ure confided to the audience that he wished he had written more of his popular songs in a lower key or register, so difficult it is to sing many of those high notes as the years go by. The truth of this revelation was obvious at many points during this year’s show, most notably during one of the most beautiful romantic ballads ever written, “Vienna” when Ure reeled back at least 3 feet from the microphone to call out the name of the titular city. Nonetheless, this quality artist puts everything he’s got into the performance, including being his own roadie (!) and the results are impressive. The audience was enthusiastic, dancing as much as older bones allow, laughing at Ure’s cracks and singing along to his melodic compositions.

midgeure_ultravoxhits_72dpiUltravox staples included the triple play “Hymn,” “The Voice,” and “Vienna” followed shortly by additional hits “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” Just about all of the Ultravox songs he played were on what was one of the greatest “best of” albums in the day Ultravox: The Collection. The set began with one that was not – the 1988 top 10 solo tome “Dear God” and it ended with a heartfelt encore that found us all singing along to David Bowie’s “Starman.” One highlight for clubbers of the day the inclusion of “Fade to Grey,” a song Ure co-wrote and produced for Visage in 1980. For anyone who wanted to rekindle the flame this artist lit in the day, or any who came to dance, the show did not disappoint!

p.s. thanks to Amy Lynn for the featured photo!