Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I guess folks really are reading these reviews!

Of the five new reviews I will link and share below, I'd like to draw attention to one in particular:

I wrote Fallen from Grace: Music of Real Life Pop Criminals for Bullz Eye's "Mix Disc Monday" series, in which fifteen songs are tied together in a different theme every two weeks. It appears that a 25 year old "writer and pop culture junkie" from Brooklyn liked it enough to submit it to Digg, where, as of now, it has collected 92 "diggs" and seven comments. It is also, as of now, the Bullz Eye story with the fourth most diggs. If anything, I'd say this says a lot about the kinds of things people find fascinating. Bad behavior is always hot, I guess.

So, if you like it, digg it!

And, here's the rest of stuff you missed from the past couple of weeks, all from Bullz-Eye:

7/29: "The Future is Unwritten: Joe Strummer" DVD review
One of the best rock docs I've seen.

7/25: Joseph Arthur Vagabond Skies EP review
Prolific dude, discovered by Peter Gabriel, talented visual artist too. Greg Dulli approves, and so do I.

7/18: This Car Up Smile When You're Alone CD review
Decent debut from East Coast indie band.

7/18: The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery: Keepnews Collection CD review "quick take"
Classic. Simple as that.

7/11: Return to Forver The Anthology CD review
Yet another compilation from another band that jumped on the reunion bandwagon...


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Steely Dan, the Greek Theatre, Berkeley, 7/26/08

I hadn’t been to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley until this summer, even though I’ve lived in the Bay area four years now. Steely Dan’s set last Saturday was the third show at the Greek I’ve attended this summer, after Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and R.E.M. last month. This was also the third time I’ve seen Steely Dan – saw them also in 2003 and in 1994. They say three is a perfect number…

Anyway, what do you get at a Steely Dan show other than perfection? Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are renowned for creating perfect sounding records, and their concerts are no different. I suppose it can sound boring if you see them too many times, but going nine years or five years between shows keeps it fresh. In this instance, besides pristine sound, playing, arrangements, etc., we got a fun opener in the Joey DeFrancesco trio. He plays the Hammond B3 like nobody’s business, and since Jimmy Smith is gone, Joey’s the modern day torch bearer for the B3’s place in jazz. The set length was just right, the two keyboards and drums trio setting worked surprisingly well (the second keyboardist, Pat Bianchi, kept his volume just a bit lower than Joey’s and complemented him tastefully), and Joey’s tongue-in-cheek reworking of “Got My Mojo Workin’” left us in an upbeat mood, and ready for Becker and Fagen to go all crabby on us.

Actually, Becker himself proved to be a funny guy as well later in the evening.

Here’s how it went down:

The band, sans Becker and Fagen and the backup singers, started the set with a two-song, unedited instrumental medley, so we could have sung along if we liked, but I think I was the only one who attempted that. First up was Everyone’s Gone to the Movies, in a funky arrangement with the melody played on muted trumpet, and a sweet baritone sax solo. This led straight into The Fez, with a cool horn arrangement overtaking the song’s signature keyboard part, and some guitar and alto sax solos. A short drum solo bridged it over to The Royal Scam and a stately opening trumpet solo. It was at this point that out come Becker, Fagen, and two female singers with huge afros. They sounded awesome, and when they were introduced later in the evening, it became very clear why that was so.

Fagen looks like a balding old man who kind of enjoys being old, smirking his way through the years because he can still sing most of his songs in the same key that was comfortable for him when he was younger. Yay to that. Another drum solo fades the song down (are we sensing a pattern here?) and another segue into…

I Got The News
. They were digging deep into their catalog early on, and they just kept on digging! Another drum segue and then…

Showbiz Kids, in a completely different arrangement, much improved over the studio version. A new theme was played to a lightweight James Brown beat, an extra chord was played for the ‘Show business kids makin’ movies of themselves’ line, and then another new chord was added for Becker’s guitar solo. The studio version of “Showbiz Kids” is one of the most boring and disappointing songs in the Steely Dan catalog (musically anyway; lyrics are another story); live, it’s totally redeemed. And after the song’s closing theme, the segue-fest finally ends so Fagen can speak to us. He cheekily proclaimed that “the Think Fast Steely Dan orchestra” would be “playing songs from various stages of our magnificent career,” and he actually wasn’t kidding on that count – every Steely Dan studio album was represented by at least one song (the first three albums and their two recent reunion albums) and as many as five (that honor went to Aja, not surprisingly).

When they played Everything You Did (in a reggae version for a new twist), the line in this jealous lover song that goes “I’m gonna a get a gun / shoot the mother down” reminded me of a story that my guitar teacher told me of a run-in with Becker in a parking lot in New York that sounded awfully similar to the story told in this song. Could it be…?

Two Against Nature was next, and it really breathed with real drums instead of whatever was done with the beat on the studio version. This is another song that I never really cared for in its studio version, but live, Fagen was in the groove, Becker’s solo swung too – it was yet another improvement, with an awesome ‘solo’ spot from the backup singers.

Hey Nineteen was the first hit that we heard in the set. Having seen Steely Dan in the Boston metro area the last two times, it was weird not hearing a huge applause for the “sweet things from Boston” lyric. But hearing Becker riffing on that bit about taking your beloved home and getting her drunk before the ‘Cuervo Gold’ bit was even funnier than when I heard it before. Maybe that’s because Fagen did it last time. Fagen is the voice of Steely Dan when he sings, but Becker just seems more like a naturally engaging storyteller when he speaks.

Godwhacker was the representation for 2003’s Everything Must Go. The breakdown each time on the ‘be very very quiet’ part was a clever touch, and the blues-derived changes set up the bari, tenor, trumpet trombone solos really well.

Fagen then pulled out the disco-fied The New Frontier from his first solo album, which was a good lead-in to the equally faux-funky Glamour Profession. Then came Gaucho in a different key, which seemed strange at first until Becker started singing it instead of Fagen.

At this point, the drum solo bookend pattern that was present at the beginning of the show gave way to a new one. Fagen played a dreamy electric piano solo that led into Home at Last. Then he laid back and let the backup singers take the lead on Parker’s Band. Charlie Parker was pictured on the screen behind the band, but incredibly, there was no sax solo at the end! How can you play a tribute to Charlie Parker and not have your band’s sax player blow a little solo on the alto? Small complaint overall, but still!

When Black Friday started, with its exaggerated shuffle beat, we knew the end was getting near. Fagen returned to his electric piano for another brief solo before the next song, Josie, which sounded like it might have been brought down a half step. Aja, however, was definitely in its original key, and was a high point of the evening.

“It sounds like the ‘60s!” said Becker, as that familiar Motown beat started up and the backup singers teased with a bit of the Supremes’ Love is Like an Itching in my Heart before Becker introduced the band over the band’s vamp. Why were those singers so good? Their names told me everything I needed to know: Cynthia Mizell and Tawatha Agee!! Cynthia sang alongside Lisa Fischer with the Rolling Stones during their Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour of 1989-90. And Tawatha was the lead singer in Mtume from ’77 till ’86. I always loved her singing on those Mtume records, especially the very first one from ’77, Kiss This World Goodbye, with “Love Lock” and “The Closer I Get To You” (which James Mtume co-wrote with Reggie Lucas for Roberta Flack). But most folks probably recognize her as the lead voice on Mtume's biggest hit, "Juicy Fruit." Here's the video, but alas, no afro (it was the '80s, boo):

Peg and Kid Charlamagne closed the main set… and when they came back for the encore, it was a somber Third World Man that preceded Fagen’s last electric piano mini-solo of the evening. They took us out with Do It Again, and Becker and Fagen walked out to an instrumental as the band kept playing; strangely, the audience started walking out too, before the band even finished! Weirdness.

That’s right, no “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” no “Reeling in the Years,” no “Deacon Blues,” no “Bodhisattva.” It was a fan’s set, for sure, and a thoroughly satisfying one.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Stevie Wonder, Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, 7/5/08

Stevie Wonder Hotter Than July album cover
Stevie’s back on the road, and I was there last Saturday, at the Shoreline, this time with four others. As he did last year, he’s billing these shows as “A Wonder Summer’s Night” and he’s playing straight through the evening with no opening act. Huge band, lots of percussion, and this time he even brought his 6 year old son Kailand to play a little bit of drums towards the end of the evening. The kid was probably the only person in the entire venue who didn’t have a huge grin on his face. Did he not want to be there? Does he take drumming that seriously? Does he not like Stevie’s music? Was he mad at his dad? Who knows… the rest of us were very happy to be there.

Casually strolling out in the early evening light with daughter and backing vocalist Asiha Morris guiding him to his perch, Stevie opened the show with some positive remarks about Barack Obama and, when he got the band started, four songs in a row off Hotter Than July. Talk about digging deep! “As If You Read My Mind” and “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me?” were two of the songs I least expected to hear, and like most of the night’s performances, they were note perfect. Even with this four pack, Innervisions was still the best represented album of the night, with five songs (“Visions,” “Living For the City,” “Golden Lady,” “Higher Ground” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing”).

The talk box came out again, as it did last year, after some fun call and response with the audience. This time he only used it for one fun cover tune – the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round,” and it was a pretty complete version too.

Biggest surprise of the evening: a full performance, with band member solo spots, of Chick Corea’s “Spain” (as heard on the second Return to Forever album, Light as a Feather). [Though Lee Hildebrand's piece for the San Francisco Chronicle identified this tune as Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez," in reality, Hildebrand only identified the intro to "Spain," which Corea lifted from Rodrigo's piece. The rest of the tune is Corea's].

Songs missed: would have been nice to hear something off A Time 2 Love. He actually announced “So What the Fuss” at the end of the night, but played “Superstition” instead and called it an evening. Not a bad trade-off, but still.

Most polite audience moment: the crowd actually hushed to listen to Aisha sing a jazzy rendition of “I’m Gonna Laugh You Out of My Life,” and good thing – she wasn’t always easy to hear. Good singing voice, definitely has her dad’s genes.

Most welcome diversion from the hits: we were treated to a new song called “Keep Fooling Yourself Baby Girl,” from the forthcoming album Through the Eyes of Wonder. There’s nothing like hearing a legend who refuses to rest on his laurels. Even though it wasn’t the most memorable tune (can’t remember the melody for the life of me), it certainly sounded catchy at the time and was modeled in classic Stevie fashion. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the album!

Most annoying abbreviation of a song: Stevie performed acceptably abbreviated versions of “Isn’t She Lovely” (I wonder if Aisha ever gets sick of hearing this song?) and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” (1 verse and two choruses do just fine), but when he stopped the band after his harmonica solo during “For Once in My Life” and declared “that’s enough of that,” man, that was nothing short of mean!

Bottom line: the man is still 100% dynamite, a national treasure. Go see him! If everybody could experience Stevie Wonder live, the makers of Prozac would surely go out of business.

Set list:

As If You Read My Mind
Master Blaster (Jammin’)
Did I Hear You Say You Love Me?
All I Do
Knocks Me Off My Feet
Audience jam/People Make The World Go Round
Higher Ground
Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing
Living For The City
Golden Lady
Keep Fooling Yourself Baby Girl
I’m Gonna Laugh You Out Of My Life (Aisha Morris)
Isn’t She Lovely (2 verses)
Ribbon In The Sky
My Cherie Amour
Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours
Sir Duke
I Wish
Do I Do
I Just Called To Say I Love You (1 verse, two choruses)
For Once In My Life (stopped after harmonica solo)
Uptight (Everything’s Alright)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"A Day in the Life," Shakey style

Thanks to Isorski for tipping us off on this recent performance of "A Day in the Life" by Neil Young this past Sunday in Dublin, Ireland. See, the Beatles were full of it when they said that the Pepper material couldn't be done live by a small rock band. So what if you can't fit an orchestra on the stage? Who needs all that lot when you have guitar distortion? Neil shows us how it's done, and it's done quite beautifully. This video really made my evening:

Let's all hope he keeps this one in his set list when he makes his way back to the States...