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.
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.
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!”
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.
On this tour, the set list did not include stalwarts “The Raven Who Refused To Sing”and “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.
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.
Astounding, and wonderful is this artist. Check him out!
Roger Hodgson performed at the Spotlight 29 Indian Casino in Coachella last Saturday night, December 3, 2016 to an audience of adoring fans. It was a heart rendering, spiritual journey through a bit of Hodgson’s fine solo work, topping a generous helping of the songs he wrote for the band Supertramp.
Anyone within range of an FM radio in the 1970’s heard a lot from Supertramp. The group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Their breakup in 1983, which ended with Rick taking over the band, and Roger taking the highway, is one of the saddest in rock history. A decade before the split, after two early releases that were not commercially successful, the band clicked, releasing three popular masterworks in succession, Crime of the Century (1974), Crisis? What Crisis? (1975), and Even in the Quietist Moments… (1977). Each of these albums blended pop, jazz, and progressive rock music into a crowd-pleasing brew that allowed them to build a growing worldwide audience.
By the time of their best selling release Breakfast in America (1979) they were mega stars, finally getting a #1 record in the states (#3 in the UK.) Many of the songs from that album are pure pop, and they became radio staples, including the title track, “The Logical Song,” and “Take the Long Way Home.” The album also contained several deeper cuts including Hodgson’s “Lord is it Mine” and “Child of Vision” – the fabulous workout for dual keys, Hodgson on Wurlitzer electric keyboard (a signature part of the album’s sound) and Davies on grand piano. After one more studio album …Famous Last Words… (1982), and tour the partnership fractured.
This Hodgson solo tour was billed as the Breakfast in America show, and there was truth in that advertising, as all of the Hodgson-penned tracks listed above were included in the set list. On top of those selections, there was a generous helping of four from Crisis? What Crisis? (my absolute favorite); the one-two lead-in “Easy Does It” and “Sister Moonshine” were included with the more rare songs “Lady” and “A Soapbox Opera.” Fantastic! Key tracks from Crime of the Century, included set opener “School,” pop hit “Dreamer,” message song “If Everyone Was Listening” and arguably Hodgson’s most beautiful, heart-rending track “Hide In Your Shell” were highlights. One of Hodgson’s solo songs, “Death and a Zoo” was particularly fitting at this venue, as the message of kindness to animals was in line with Native American attitudes and music, including a tribal drum workout that shined. Closing the set, “Fool’s Overture” sated the prog crowd, while encores -“Had a Dream (Sleeping with the Enemy)” (his first solo single) and of course “Give a Little Bit” – kept everyone close to the stage and on their feet.
Hodgson was in fine voice, able to reach smoothly into his upper register, which is critical for these songs to hit their mark. His playing on keys and particularly on twelve-string acoustic guitar was impeccable. The band was very strong as they deftly brought down the volume during sensitive bits, while punching the rockier moments. As the main man is so often on keys, there are times where an additional guitarist could punch things up a bit. But for this patron listening to these songs rendered with two and sometimes three simultaneous keyboards was pure heaven.
Hodgson himself waxed philosophical, as has been his norm during the last decade as he tours as a duo or with band. 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.
See this enduring artist while the show goes on and the quality of performance is still so outstanding – if you care for this music, or just have interest and an open heart, it will be a priceless evening.
Adele brought her current tour to the Oakland Arena August 2, 2016, just after two sold out nights in San Jose. The concert was fabulous in every way, from the production design, to the sound, the band, and Adele herself, who was in great spirits and exceptional voice.
The concert production (featuring creative direction and stage design by Es Devlin) focused appropriately on Adele and her vocal performance. There were no dancers, no special effects. She arrived on a “b stage” placed near the rear of the floor, starting off with “Hello,” and over the course of the concert did several songs from that position. But most of the time, she stood in front of her band that was arrayed within a diamond-shaped stage behind, at times behind a gauzy curtain that could be opaque or translucent, allowing for some nice multiple-exposure visuals via 12 projectors, and some shadow play when the band was lit from behind the curtain. One thing noticeable was how frequently white spotlights were trained on Adele with a lack of color in the rear and front-stage visuals, except for during the James Bond theme “Skyfall” when she and stage were bathed in red light. In one very impressive moment, Adele returned to the b stage for several tracks, ending with the closer “Set Fire to the Rain” at which point she was surrounded on all four sides by real falling water, giving the illusion of her singing within the rainfall. Then for the encore, graffiti cannons fired away, sending up white strips of paper each adorned with a lyric, or phrase that appeared to be hand-written… my wife and teen girls scooped up tons of it! Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and LD Adam Bassett and the stage design team did her proud, achieving the intended focus on her performance with these elegant touches.
As to Adele herself, her voice was in perfect shape. The songs she close spanned her catalog sounding as good as or better than the original studio versions. The set list was well balanced, the only cover being a sweet take on Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love.” Most were played faithfully to the originals, with two tracks done acoustically, “Million Years Ago,” and “Don’t You Remember.” Adele generally stood in place, whether main or b stage, swaying or turning a bit all while projected on front and rear stage screens to get everyone in the audience a great view.
What was unexpected for this uninitiated attendee 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 tracks in the playlist, and between those and the banter, there was a celebratory air in the room.
All in all a wonderful, heart-warming and entertaining evening from this pop megastar, who deserves every accolade.
Recently I wrote glowingly about one of my favorite bands, Supertramp and their recently recovered film of the Breakfast in America tour. Last year they released that stunning video Live in Paris ’79 – one of the best-filmed concerts from any rock band of the era, coming to the market 34 years after the event. It’s about to be re-released along with a CD set of the complete unedited concert. This group was led by a marriage of the uniquely talented principal members, Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies. Both founders planned tours this year, an exciting development for fans of their work.
Supertramp’s radio-friendly sound was a mix of progressive and pop – incorporating elements of rock, blues, jazz, and lots of honky-tonk piano, they balanced light and dark compositions to an exquisite blend. Joined by the accomplished John Helliwell on winds, Dougie Thomson on bass and steady drummer Bob Seibenberg, their core work from Crime of the Century (1974) to Famous Last Words (1982) brought the band increasing success. Their breakup in 1983, which ended with Rick taking over the band, and Roger taking the highway, is one of the saddest in rock history.
After a long absence from the stage, ending around 2005, Roger has been taking the songs he wrote for Supertramp out on the road, staging a continuing series of exceptional concerts, as a duo or with band, his voice and skills as a musician undiminished by time. It’s been more difficult to catch Davies, as travelling under the moniker of Supertramp has been a rarity, particularly in the states. In fact, this year Supertramp booked a series of concerts across Europe, 5 years since they were last seen live there. Unfortunately, just this week, the “Supertramp Forever” tour has been cancelled, citing health issues impacting Davies, who was recently diagnosed with multiple myeloma and is fighting the disease. Davies issued this statement:
“I was really looking forward to returning to Europe and playing with the band again and I’m sorry to disappoint everyone who has overwhelmingly supported the upcoming tour. Unfortunately my current health issues have derailed me and right now I need to focus all of my energy on getting well.”
Sad news to be sure, and fans immediately took to the blogosphere to wish Rick well in his recovery. Without these shows we will also miss seeing the accomplished John Helliwell on winds and the rest of the remaining band. Most importantly, as the principal writers hew to their own songs in current shows, we will miss hearing many of Rick’s most enduring compositions, such as “Bloody Well Right”, “Asylum” and “Downstream” to name a few, along with his amazing skills as a pianist most impressively displayed on “Another Man’s Woman”.
Rick and Roger added different skills to the group – Rick a tougher edge – more cynical lyrics backed by a mean honky-tonk piano or roadhouse blues every bit as tight as Elton John. Roger more frequently displayed a gentle, spiritual personality, imploring listeners to open their minds and hearts. His vocals and accompaniment on 12 string acoustic and electric guitars as well as keyboards are stellar. The two composers, when they collaborated, when trading off ideas, alternating vocals – at times even speaking to each other within a song, created a sum that was bigger than the parts, even when they seemed to be coming from different walks of life. Witness lyrics from the bluesy ballad “Just a Normal Day,” from their under-appreciated masterpiece Crisis? What Crisis? (1975):
Rick: Well, I just feel, that every minute’s wasted, My life is unreal….
Roger: …I don’t know what to say; It just seems a normal day
By the time of their best selling release Breakfast in America (1979) Supertramp were mega stars, finally getting a #1 record in the states (#3 in the UK.) Many of the songs from that album are pure pop, and became radio staples, including the title track, “The Logical Song,” “Goodbye Stranger,” and “Take the Long Way Home.” The album also contained several deeper cuts including Roger’s “Child of Vision” – the fabulous workout for dual keys, Roger on Wurlitzer electric keyboard (a signature part of the album’s sound) and Rick on grand piano. Among other tracks, Rick wrote one of his prettiest ballads, “Casual Conversations” sporting the lyrics:
There’s no communication left between us
But is it me or you who’s to blame?
Though the details are debated, it’s clear that Rick and Roger’s union was a fractured affair. They mounted a huge international tour to support Breakfast in America – breaking attendance records at the time – and they released their first live album Paris (1980) taken from the shows at the Pavilion de Paris, 1979. This is the album and now accompanying video that will be re-released this year. The centerpiece of this concert is the one-two punch of Rick’s brilliant vocal and piano work on “Another Man’s Woman” which then leads into Roger’s “Child of Vision.” In the latter, the two play their dual keyboards in harmonic perfection, reminding all viewers that though the union was difficult, great art was created during their time together. After one more album, the aptly titled …Famous Last Words… in 1982 and the tour that followed, Roger and Rick split. The only way to catch these artists since that time has been to see one of them separately. To see Rick Davies, fans will obviously have to wait until a recovery is complete, provided he returns to the stage thereafter. If Roger comes to town, or nearby, consider going out of your way a bit even if you must travel to a concert, as his shows are highly recommended. Any live show with either of these artists is a treat but for now the newly minted Paris concert video is now the best way to see what Supertramp was about when they were still together.
Alan Parsons and his supremely talented band played the Nokia Club in Los Angeles, performing in town for the first time in 6 years on June 11, 2015. The group was at the absolute top of their game, driving through a set list that included many of their hits recorded over the years as The Alan Parsons Project, and in particular highlighting one of their most popular albums, The Turn Of A Friendly Card(1980). It’s going to be difficult to express just how amazing this concert was without leaving a bit of the journalist aside and instead sharing these thoughts as a devoted fan of Alan Parsons and all of his work over the years. So here goes, starting with some background.
Alan Parsons is the well-known audio engineer, record producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who began his career as a music engineer with the likes of The Beatles (Abbey Road) and Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon) and went on to engineer and/or produce award winning artists Ambrosia, Al Stewart, Steven Wilson and others too numerous to detail herein. Alan and collaborator Eric Woolfson began a career as The Alan Parsons Project (APP) with their definitive progressive rock release Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Edgar Allen Poe) (1976), followed closely by I Robot (1977). These records are diverse, eclectic masterworks of the genre, and they belong in every quality music collection. Many of us selected our stereo equipment back in the day by spinning one of these albums to test out record players, amps and speakers such was the amazing production and sonic quality of the recordings. As APP went on, they released one great record after another: Pyramid (1978), Eve (1979), The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980), Eye In The Sky (1982) and on, in all ten albums, each demonstrating the strength of the Parsons/Woolfson songwriting team, and showcasing their musical talents and those of their many collaborators. These included orchestral arranger Andrew Powell, long time guitarist Ian Bairnson, drums from Stuart Elliott, bass and vocals from David Paton, and numerous vocalists including the late, great Chris Rainbow, Colin Blunstone, and Eric himself. The project ended in 1990 after Alan and Eric made a brief foray into musical theater with Freudiana. Eric continued with musical theater until his untimely passing in 2009, and Alan went on present their music live, while releasing and touring four solo records in the 90’s and 00’s.
The Alan Parsons Project maintained a focus on bringing beautiful melodies and vocal harmonies to their compositions. Along with some rockers, Eric and Alan wrote and recorded many achingly beautiful and sentimental pop tunes and with Andrew’s orchestral arrangements, the songs were rendered with lush and dramatic colors. This was definitely prog-pop and contemporary music of its time, for fans with a heart, which left some harder prog-rock zealots behind, while rewarding those who followed. I’ve found that everyone from several generations near mine know the name Alan Parsons, and can identify, for instance “Eye In The Sky,” but many have less an idea just how many hits they would recognize. One reason for this is that Alan and Eric never toured to support this work, save for a show in 1990 just before they split. The first time I was able to see the band was touring to support Alan’s excellent second solo record On Air (1996) when a new band was assembled with lead vocalist P.J. Olsson.
For this latest concert, Alan Parsons and his musicians were all in a great spirit, reproducing the sound of the APP records with pinpoint accuracy but also with some improvisation, and room to demonstrate virtuosity. The band are: Alastair Greene (guitar), Dan Tracey (guitar), Guy Erez (bass), Danny Thompson (drums), Tom Brooks (keyboards), Todd Cooper (lead vocals, saxophone, cowbell J), and long time vocalist P.J. Olsson. The band showcased the following numbers from throughout the years:
“I Robot” / title track
“Damned If I Do” / Eve
“Don’t Answer Me” / Ammonia Avenue
“Breakdown” / I Robot, “The Raven” / Tales of Mystery and Imagination
“Time” / The Turn Of A Friendly Card
“I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” / I Robot
“Days Are Numbers (The Traveller)” / Vulture Culture
“The Turn Of A Friendly Card” (suite) / title track
“Psychobabble” / Eye In The Sky
“Do You Live At All” / new track – single w/Fragile
“Limelight” / Stereotomy
“(The System Of) Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” / Tales of Mystery and Imagination
“Old And Wise” / Eye In The Sky
“Prime Time” / Ammonia Avenue
“Sirius,” “Eye In The Sky” / title track
“Don’t Let It Show” / I Robot
“Games People Play” / The Turn Of A Friendly Card
This set included something from almost every APP album from 1977-1987, along with Alan’s new single “Do You Live At All.” Vocals took center stage as six of the eight performers sang multi-part harmonies atop crisp instrumentals throughout. Alan, Alastair, and Dan took lead vocal on one or more tracks while P.J. and Todd tackled more of the songs. On this night, P.J. in particular stunned the audience with fantastic, heartwarming lead vocals on “Time,” “Old and Wise,” “Don’t Let It Show” and others, each performed with poise and emotion. Additional lead vocalist Todd Cooper nailed several key tracks including a highlight of the evening “Psychobabble,” which shone light on Guy’s bass plus Danny’s powerful backbeat, and another classic, “Limelight,” peppering others with lilting sax solos, and even some cowbell! Dan sang on the funky hit “I Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” displaying attitude and chops during the memorable guitar bridge. The centerpiece of this tour is the multi-part suite “The Turn Of A Friendly Card” which gave the band additional time to stretch out, including more layered keys from Alan and classical piano from talented player Tom Brooks. Alan presided over all of this as master of ceremonies – singing, playing keyboards, acoustic guitar and addressing the enthusiastic audience. Club Nokia was a great venue for the show – intimate while being sizable enough for the large band to resonate. It is part of an entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles that includes a much larger arena – as Alan dryly noted between songs, “the place is called Microsoft something – we’ll play there one day, when we get big.” During another break Alan noted that all the APP albums were available in the lobby in vinyl format, known to younger fans as “those big black CDs!” and made a pitch for quality music formats, such as his new single available in WAV format, as those MP3’s “just make the music sound awful.” On this night the music sounded fantastic and the performance was stunning, befitting this man of many talents, Alan Parsons, and his marvelous band.
*apologies to Danny Thompson, the band’s excellent drummer -no closeup captured!
I was cleaning out a bookshelf this afternoon and came across my senior high school yearbook, from 1978, in which had been scrawled “Genesis Rules” (with the band name in the font of their seminal 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway of course). These days instead of printed yearbooks, I spend some time in Facebook, and now belong to many fan groups for 70’s bands like Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, and Gentle Giant. As we did so long ago, the posts therein still frequently debate which instances of a band’s body of work had merit and which did not, and I find myself, more often than not at this stage of life, wincing at the derision shown to groups or players who are accused of having “sold out” to achieve commercial success. It’s all good – everybody is entitled to their opinion, especially on the web where we feel very entitled thank you. But for me, while I used to fall into the more critical camp I’m inclined to celebrate all of this work, whether “prog” or “pop”. The debate raged back then, and is still continuing today – questioning the artistic merit of 70’s bands as they “progressed” from more experimental work to the mainstream. It’s an engaging pastime for many of us, who pour through our favorite albums, examining the musical passages (some of them in 9/8), the meaning of the lyrics (unifauns?), and the art of album packaging. It was and still is a fantastic era for discussion – music that meant something to so many – music not to be listened to in awful compressed digital replications, but on hi fidelity audio systems we assembled with attention to how sound would be replicated in our rooms back at home or in the dorms.
But sometimes, all the analysis and hand wringing over the purity of the vision and musical prowess of progressive era bands misses an important point. In our zeal to celebrate the exceptional artistry of more complex early works, we may dismiss later efforts when oft times prog artists stripped down from a dozen keyboards to a few, set down their mandolins and flutes, and focused on music that was a bit more direct, unadorned, and actually rocked or touched the heart as priority one. In fact, most bands of the era went from long, complex compositions to more accessible three-to-five minute songs, more often than not in the verse-chorus-verse form and possibly even, gulp, including “love songs” or more overt “rockers” in the mix. While some were no doubt driven to this change by the popularity of punk (itself the ultimate celebration of raw simplicity) others headed that direction in order to feed their families, and some just did so as their own tastes changed. At the time, many dedicated fans felt betrayed by these rare bands that had so successfully engaged our analytical minds. When much of that faded away, we were left with music that was meant to appeal more to the heart than the head, and possibly even inspire, dare I say it, dancing (you know, to a rhythm, not the hippie free flow). For many, the emotional “divorce” from these early works, these heroes who left “home” to embrace new lives, left lasting scars on their musical psyches. Instead of being able to appreciate a wider body of music from these bands as they aged, listeners have been tempted to hold on to past glories, seeing all that comes after as being lesser than before. Many fans I know basically stopped listening to new music after the 70s unless it came from newer bands that played in the old way. I’ve always found this limiting view to be unfortunate.
As to my own journey, I studied piano for seven long years from age ten, and I had been introduced to music from the classical masters, knowing well what it took to create some of these compositions and perform them on record and in concert. Keyboard players like Tony Banks of Genesis, Rick Wakeman of Yes Keith Emerson from ELP, and Kerry Minnear from Gentle Giant were my heroes. Their work had been blindingly complex, and inspiring to trained ears. Much of it directly or indirectly incorporated passages from the classical composers, such as Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and others, who had been their musical inspiration. I, like many, mourned the time when Tony Banks put away his Mellotron, and stripped his compositions back to their essence for albums like Abacab. The same kind of regret took hold when Kerry Minnear switched to simpler tracks and overt rockers for the last three Gentle Giant albums. But I had also liked Cat Stevens, Elton John, Supertramp, and others who started and continued in a more pop friendly vein, and who were unencumbered by the expectation that they deliver more complex works. While I mourned what seemed like the end of the classical prog era, I also was able to embrace the different work that followed from these artists, and new bands from the 80s on.
One musician who seemed to be the very embodiment of the prog to pop transition, and who caught the lion’s share of the derision for it all was, wait for it….., Phil Collins. Phil had spent time behind his drum kit as one of the best drummers on the planet – from his work in Genesis, to Brand X, and his long solo career, his artistry behind the drums was top tier. Yet Phil as a vocalist and songwriter very intentionally travelled this road from prog complexity to international pop superstardom, and he took a great many critical hits along the way. Part of this can be explained by his overexposure during the 80s, and part can be attributed to the fact that some of his pop work goes to the extreme side of the form, sometimes cloying (see “Sussudio”) and in almost complete opposition to his original musical roots. But to dismiss the entirety of his output after the 70s is tragic, as in the world of “heart ruling mind” he became a master.
The defining moment for me in Phil’s transition was seeing him on tour supporting “Hello I Must Be Going” at the Universal Amphitheater, December 17, 1982, in “Los Angleeeze” as the man used to exclaim. That night Phil played an amazing set culled from his first two albums, and he included just one “theatrical” element, donning a dodgy overcoat for his ode to voyeurism, “Thru These Walls”. When he both sang and played drums for the hit “In The Air Tonight” it was enthralling – pure magic. But theater and mystery didn’t particularly matter on this night. For the most part, Phil told jokes, treated us to some of his clearest most beautiful vocal performances, and during a few tracks, his legendary powerful drumming. Basically, he entertained the talkative crowd, who raised drinks in celebration and chatted endlessly through the show.
Just the night before, in a tone that was a stark contrast, Peter Gabriel played the same venue, in support of his dark masterpiece dubbed Security. It was his darkest and most theatrical show since leaving Genesis. The players entered from the back of the venue, banging out the opening beats of the first track “Rhythm of the Heat”. As the band reached the stage, and stood in line across the front, still pounding out the Ghanaian beat, Gabriel climbed to the top of a structure center stage towering above, stood with his arms raised high, and let out a blood curdling tribal yell to open the song, and the show. A chill went down my spine that I will never forget. The audience in whole was immediately struck silent, in rapt attention as Peter took all on a journey through his most recent, brooding work. I recall looking behind me across the amphitheater, at a sea of blank faces, as audience and performer merged during the performance. The intensity let up only for the more upbeat “I Go Swimming” and Gabriel’s ode to going solo, “Solsbury Hill.” It was, and remains, the best concert performance I’ve ever seen.
The contrast between these two nights was extreme, and I’ve told the story to many since, recognizing Gabriel’s accomplishment, while at the same time appreciating Phil’s lighter, celebratory evening of entertainment. In fact, the two lead singers had just played together again only two months before at the first and only Genesis reunion in early October the same year. Peter would go on to record his most successful album So as a follow up to this one, shedding much of the dramatic tones of the early 80s and embracing a more commercially appealing approach. Phil continued on his pop solo career, increasingly driving Genesis to broaden their appeal as well, in agreement with Tony and Mike.
Having said all of this, tonight, we are relaxing, having some wine, and flipping through videos. We came upon some clips from Genesis during their 90’s era. While I still love the oldest songs best, I’ve realized that I really appreciate the pop-‘n-rock stuff too. Maybe I’ve gone a bit soft, sure, but maybe its a little needed perspective, after all these years. In the past Phil was omnipresent, but now that he’s almost gone, I wish he were here.
Stevie Wonder played at the Oakland Arena Friday December 5, 2014 performing his 1976 masterwork, Songs In The Key of Life. He arrived amidst a series of tense protests in Oakland and across the country over the grand jury verdict that declined to indict a white New York cop over the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, a black man who was stopped by police for selling loose cigarettes earlier this year. While protesters took to the streets just blocks away from the concert venue, and even shut down highway 880 outside, Stevie took the stage to urge love and harmony for all people, acknowledging that there is still far to go with race relations, before launching into the entire 22 song suite for a show that lasted more than three rapturous hours.
The “Songs in the Key of Life” album is one of Stevie’s most accomplished, and certainly includes many of his most meaningful, touching lyrics. Some speak to race relations, but more reflect the positive experiences of his childhood, and praise God and love eternal. These messages were perfectly suited for the evening, and as he went through the set, key songs were introduced with stories and short statements. The album was presented in it’s entirety, beginning after a lengthy introduction and welcome, followed by a beautiful rendition of the first song, “Love’s In Need of Love Today” clearly articulating it’s sentiments in his undiminished tone:
Love’s in need of love today
Send yours in right away
Hate’s goin’ round
Breaking many hearts
Stop it please
Before it’s gone too far
Each song was presented as it’s own work of musical art, some with just Stevie and one or two accompanists, others with up to thirty backup musicians and singers, some part of the main band, some guests. The entire album was delivered at the highest level of excellence of any show I’ve seen. Stevie was in perfect voice, demonstrating his immense skills as a vocalist, and player of harmonica, piano, synthesizer, and other instruments. The music travels a wide range including R&B, soul, funk, gospel, fusion, and a dash of rock and it seemed perfectly fitting for such a substantial entourage to reproduce them. For the second track, Stevie brought India Ari to the fore singing “Have a Talk With God.” The next track, “Village Ghetto Land” was performed by Stevie with just his ten-piece orchestra – a heartbreaking story of poverty and despair in the inner city. The six-piece horn section punctuated celebratory tracks “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” just as one would dare to hope. Bass from original collaborator Nathan Watts, along with three keyboard players, three guitarists, and as many drummers pumped up funky tracks like “Contusion” and “Black Man.” Backup singers included Stevie’s daughter, Aisha, herself introduced for the song “Isn’t She Lovely” written for her almost 40 years ago. All the performers rose to the occasion, surely realizing they were not just playing a normal concert, but performing one of the greatest albums of our time, with one of our greatest artists.
The highlight for this witness were the last few songs, each a different ode to love. First, a wonderful version of “If It’s Magic” – Stevie singing along with a recording of original harpist Dorthy Ashby encouraging the crowd that “we must become more of a united people of these United States” with the lyrics,
If it’s magic
Why can’t we make it everlasting
Like the lifetime of the sun
It will leave no heart undone
For there’s enough for everyone
This was followed by the one-two punch of “As” and “Another Star” the latter’s salsa beat punctuated by Oakland native’s Sheila E.’s raucous percussion at which point more than thirty performers covered the stage in praise and celebration. There were generous encores and fun after the main set, but I could have left then, feeling as full of joy as after any concert I’ve seen. Stevie took us to church that night, reminding us it’s possible to live in harmony, that there is more to do in our lives, more people to touch, and more to give. Until the day that is the day we are no more. Love, in.