Monthly Archives: January 2011

Top 20 Concerts (Part 1)

I love going to shows.  It’s more than just a passion.  It’s almost a way of life.  The band comes on, and there’s lift-off – a sense of excitement where anything can happen. Nothing else matters at that particular moment in time except the people who aren’t just asking for your attention, but in some cases demanding it.

The best places to see shows, are venues that are almost downright dirty, and grungy.  The stale smell of beer.  Though most of the places I go to see shows now are smoke-free, you can still smell the smoke stained in the floor and the walls.  (This is why I think that Baltimore’s Rams Head Live is a intimate venue, it will be better in about 20 years when it’s been lived in.)

Today I’ll post 20 – 15, and tomorrow I’ll post the rest through the week.

20. The Dirtbombs (April 2008, Sonar – Baltimore, MD)

I never really heard of the Dirtbombs until my friend introduced me to them.  The Dirtbombs mix of R&B, Soul, and funk played with an aggressive twist is made for a live-setting.  It’s a non-stop party – a perfect setting for the dingy hole in the wall of Baltimore’s Sonar Club.  This show holds the record for the smallest show outside of a bar-band that I’ve seen – but it was also one of the loudest, and loaded with energy.  I’m pretty sure that The Dirtbombs only played for over an hour, but their short energized blast made it seem like they were playing for 3 hours.  After the show my friend spilled his beer all over singer Mick Collins while trying to get a poster signed.  A fitting way to end an awesome night.

19. Eddie Vedder (June 2009, The Lyric Opera House – Baltimore MD)

Normally you think of Eddie Vedder as a very serious dude, but at this solo show he was surprisingly funny cracking jokes and telling stories.  The Lyrics is actually the complete opposite of Sonar – I sat in velvet cushioned seats!  It was great to see one of rock’s modern legends in such a small place.  Despite an aborted attempt at the looped vocal chant of “Arc”, Vedder put out on a show that was both loose and tight at the same time.  Most of the material stemmed from the Into The Wild soundtrack, but he also threw in some Pearl Jam songs such as “Porch” and a pretty reverent cover of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”.

18.. The Recipe – March 2005, 8X10 – Baltimore MD

Normally, I don’t particularly like the type of music that The Recipe specialize in which is jamming.  But, unlike say The Grateful Dead, and Phish this band is fun.  This is a show that I don’t remember much of actually, but this is one of those bands that I’ll always remember seeing because like the Dirtbombs, it was so much damn fun.  My friend and I debated who would be fun to hang out with after the show – the cute fiddle player, or the old dude playing the banjo dubbed “Uncle Eddie”.  I said Uncle Eddie, because he probably had the best collection of music in the band.

17. They Might Be Giants – June 1994- Wolftrap, Virginia

This gets an automatic inclusion just for the fact that this was my first concert.  They Might Be Giants were one of those groups that I grew up by way of my older siblings.  Sure, they’re silly but they’re kind of like The Ramones who were smarter than they actually let on.  I went to the show with my three older brothers, and while I’m not sure if I would enjoy it on the same level, back then it was one of the highlights of my youth.

16. Lou Reed – April 2008, The National – Richmond Virginia

(This is from the actual show I went to.)

With Lou Reed you kind of have to look past the fact that he can be a bit surly, and just appreciate the music.  This show was a case in point.  Reed, has nothing left to prove anymore, so it was enjoyable just to see the man play.  While there plenty of expected moments (distortion and feedback, some biting dialogue – particularly about “I’m Sticking With You”) there were also plenty of surprises including an energetic version of “Sweet Jane”, and a slow-burning take on “Ecstasy”.

More tomorrow.

 

 

5 Great British Bands That Go (Mostly) Unnoticed In the US

“Laid” by James just randomly played on my computer and my girlfriend demanded to know why I purchased that “stupid song from American Pie”.   I told her I actually have 5 songs from James.  To the US audience, much like Blur (who’s only stateside hit is “Song 2” aka “Woo hoo!”), James is considered a one-hit wonder.  But in Britain they were part of the Manchester scene (the UK equivalent of the US’ musical 90s Mecca Seattle) and put out a total of 12 albums since 1986.  Not bad for a band that is only known for “one song” in the US.

James and Blur aren’t the only bands to achieve commercial and artistic success in the UK, only to remain relatively unknown in the US.  So here’s my list of 5 great British bands that Americans don’t pay enough attention to.

Joy Division

Another band from Manchester.  Joy Division are perhaps best known for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which came out after their lead singer Ian Curtis died.  Joy Division are one of rock’s most important bands – they’re practically the inventors of post-punk.  Joy Division were one of the first groups that took punk’s DIY ethics and lo-fi techniques and place the emphasis on mood and atmospherics rather than straight up aggression and anger.

The Smiths

Without a doubt, The Smiths were the most important alternative rock band of the 80s (with the exception of R.E.M.).  Morrissey was a highly intellectual and literate lyricist whose lyrics are most often associated with loneliness and isolation, but he could also be a keen social critic as well (“Panic”, “The Queen is Dead”, and “Sweet and Tender Hooligan”).   Johnny Marr is a widely underrated guitarist, and his ringing chords provided the backdrop for the Smith’s unique take on rock with a pop sensibility.  Stateside, they are probably best known for “How Soon Is Now?” which is a great song, but not representative of their sound.

The Faces

The Faces are probably best known at least in the US as “band that Rod Stewart used to sing with” or “that band that Ronnie Wood was in before he was in The Rolling Stones”.  The Faces songs were sloppy, and dirty much like The Rolling Stones in a certain way.  But while The Rolling Stones became the target of many punk bands for their overblown image, many punk bands often cited the Faces as a direct influence.

The Kinks

The Kinks are probably best remembered in the US for “You Really Got Me”.   Although they normally get placed in with the “British Invasion” wave of the early 60s, The Kinks incorporated pop, country, R&B, folk and blues into their sound.  The riff of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” is almost a direct rip-off a Kinks song.  The Kinks influence can be heard in the songs of the The Clash, The Ramones, the Jam, and Oasis.

The Clash

To the US audience, the Clash are mostly known for “Should I Stay or I Should I Go?” or “Rock the Casbah”.  But with the dynamic Joe Strummer at the helm, The Clash were one “the CNN of music”.  They were political and intelligent.  And they can could take on almost any musical style and make it their own as witnessed on 1979’s London Calling. If both Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen cover your songs, that should say something about The Clash’s influence.

What Happened to Matisyahu?

The other day, the live version of “King Without a Crown” came on my Itunes randomly.  It had been a while since I listened to the song (a year and a half actually) and I was surprised at how good it was.  So I put on Live at Stubbs and listened to it all the way through for the first time in about 3 years, and while I wouldn’t rank it in the Top 10 Live Albums of all time, it is probably without a doubt the best live album of the 2000s.  Any feelings of being alienated by his religious beliefs are gone by the sonic assault on “King Without a Crown”, and he also does a pretty bad-ass beat-box as well.  On “Aish Tamid”,  he lets the band fall back and sing solo for a few bars.  Then the tension grows as Matisyahu taunts his band to keep up with him as he raps about the destruction of the temple.   His mix of reggae, rap, and religious imagery definitely made Matisyahu unique, but Live at Stubb’s is more than that.  Its a man at the peak of his powers, and the type of show that is rarely caught on tape.

Live at Stubb’s was the first album that I bought by Matisyahu, and I had big expectations for the follow-up Youth.  Unfortunately, I found much of it to be stale, and almost fake sounding.  I blame it on the production.  Matisyahu still had the arrangements of great songs (I’m thinking of “Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)”.  But the producers somehow decided this song was a dance-song that lingers somewhere between a reggae song and adult contemporary acts like the Black Eyed Peas.  Luckily, the song was saved by a fantastic live version from Austin City Limits, found on Itunes.  The addition of a live-band not only added more life to the song, but also made it more believable.

Matisyahu’s biggest problem is his marketing team and producers.  He has great songs, and can give great performances.  Just because he plays reggae doesn’t mean he belongs in dance-hall.  Maybe he should remind his record company that he used to be a hippie.

Preview of R.E.M.’s “Collapse Into Now”

I’m getting pretty excited about R.E.M.’s upcoming album Collapse  Into Now. 2008’s Accelerate was a return to form, after about 10 years of three abysmal albums (1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal, and 2004’s virtually unlistenable Around The Sun).  While I loved Accelerate when it came out, its break-neck speed which was refreshing at the time has proved to be its achilles heel.  R.E.M. is at their best when their songs are moody and reflective even in their rockers.  Accelerate in its urgency left little room for the listener to enter into the songs.

But the songs off of Collapse Into Now that have been leaked or officially find R.E.M. entering a territory both familiar and new.  “It Happened Today” sounds like something off of Out Of Time – except better than almost all of the songs combined with the exception of “Losing My Religion”.  Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sing through while Mike Mills, Michael Stipe, and guest vocalist Eddie Vedder spend almost two minutes in a wordless harmonizing chant that never ceases to be boring.  “Mine Smell Like Honey” sounds like an Accelerate out-take, with its blasting guitars.  Yet it’s more accessible in its melody, and a reminder than the interchange between Mike Mills and Michael Stipe is a force to be reckoned with.  The psychedelic “Discoverer” might be the weakest of the three tracks I’ve heard, but it’s still very good. Stipe’s chant of “Discoverer!” in the chorus might of course be a live-highlight.

If these three tracks are any indication, Collapse Into Now might be a latter-day R.E.M. classic, as opposed to just a very good R.E.M. album like Accelerate.

“It Happened Today”

Why Sam Cooke Is Still Important

Tomorrow (Saturday January 22nd) Sam Cooke would be 80.  It’s hard to imagine what Cooke would be like as an old man, as he died perhaps at the pinnacle of his career in December of 1964.  Perhaps as a result of becoming bored with contemporary artists, in the past few years I’ve developed quite an interest in soul music.  The more I listened to soul, Sam Cooke always seemed to tower above the rest.  Like Bob Dylan, Cooke has not only become one of my favorite artists of all time, but his songs have continued to be more rewarding with each listen.

Unlike his contemporaries like Ray Charles , Cooke has never really received a renaissance in recent years.  Yet he has never really gone away.  Anytime a hip-hop artist or R&B soul sings about God, Cooke is there.  At a time when artists such as Little Richard struggled with secular music and religion, Cooke proved that you could make Gospel music accessible and exciting in modern music with such songs as “Jesus Gave Me Water” along with the Soul Stirrers version of “Peace in the Valley”.  His clear, and distinct vocal style was a template for almost every soul singer afterward from Curtis Mayfield to Al Green.  Cooke was one of the first African Americans to actually partake in the business side of music – he set up his own label SAR records.  So anytime you see a hip-hop artist venturing into business ventures, Cooke is also there.  With “A Change Is Gonna Come” (inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in The Wind”) Cooke became of the first socially conscious pop-singers paving the way for the likes of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and much of Bob Marley’s career.  James Brown’s Live At the Apollo is usually considered to be one of the definitive live soul albums.  But Cooke’s own Live at the Harlem Square Club recorded in 1963, is even better.  Cooke delivers a tight, sweaty, and sexy set of classics such as “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”, and “Bring It On Home To Me”.

Of course, Cooke’s influence isn’t just limited to African American artists and soul music. Van Morrison famously covered “Bring It On Home To Me” on his double live album, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Mary’s Place” off The Rising is directly inspired by Cooke’s own “Meet Me at Mary’s Place”.  And Rod Stewart once claimed that he would study Cooke’s vocals for hours in his room as a teenager.  In 2008, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists released Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke, a tour-only EP of Sam Cooke covers.  Amy Winehouse also covered “Cupid” on the deluxe version of Back to Black.

Cooke’s death at age 33 was one of music’s tragedies. Who knows what he would have recored had he lived.  But Cooke still lives on through his music.  And it still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did some 40-50 years later.

 

 

 

The “New and Improved” (And Politically Correct) American Idol

With the addition of Steven Tyler, American Idol seems to have entered its own politically correct era.  The era of the biting (but sometimes truthful) Simon Cowell is out in favor of more friendly faces such as Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler.  While the addition of Tyler may be more interesting (he’s kind of a loose cannon after-all) he’s hardly likely to be offensive to the contestants.

Tyler’s appearance proves that Idol is all about everyone getting a chance that otherwise might be not be available. Just last year, Tyler went into rehab and abandoned his own band.  You could argue that Aerosmith was already a joke – but the damage was already done.  To the general public, he was a loose canon.  But American Idol provides the perfect redemption – he can not only bring back his star, and help judge the next star while also being nice.  What better way to win the ways of America’s hearts?

Tyler’s reputation was/is certainly on the line when he took the gig.  His Aerosmith band-mate Joe Perry has suggested that he ruined everything that Aerosmith worked for, as has Kid-Rock.  But Tyler’s biggest offense isn’t being on the show – it’s his niceness along with Jennifer Lopez’s.  Last night’s episode proved that those who didn’t quite have the chops for Idol were let down with a softening blow.  Lopez seemed particularly saddened at having to tell people no.  Everyone is left off easy.

Of course it remains to be seen, how nice Idol will be once the contestants are actually picked and the public gets its vote.  By having a looser view of who can actually make it on the show, the judges might have eliminated one of America’s favorite characters: the under-dog.  In years before, Cowell was the one who usually had the most influence and those with less talent (but more personality) were usually let in by the skin of their teeth.  Now, the opposite could be true.

America loves the under-dog.  It’s a country built upon that very mindset.  That’s partially why Idol has continued to be popular – even after 10 years.  Unlike sports event, when the public gets to view the underdog rise to the top on Idol, the public is a participant.  Unfortunately, it also creates the feeling that viewers “own” the contestants and winners.  They have their own image of what the winner will be like.  Perhaps, that is why the runners-up tend to sell better than the winning counterparts.  America doesn’t feel as let down if the winner’s album or song isn’t quite good enough.

It remains to be seen, but perhaps the voting public will not be as kind as the new judges.

 

Live on Ten Legs Vs. Bootlegs

So the other morning I woke up and saw that Pearl Jam was one of the top ten most searched items on Yahoo.  Several things to came to mind: did they break up?  Why else would Pearl Jam be on the most searched list on Yahoo?  As it turns out, that did not happen.   Instead, it had to do with a promotional video voiced by Eddie Vedder for their newest live album that came out yesterday.

Live on Ten Legs is a sequel of sorts to their 1998 live album Live on Two Legs. As somebody that likes Pearl Jam, how come I didn’t know about this?  In the early half of the 2000s, I used to be obsessed with obtaining as many of Pearl Jam’s official bootlegs as I could.  Each double-disc set (some shows even contained 3 CDs of Pearl Jam live awesomeness!) had a different setlists, and some songs such as “Porch” could be different from night to night.  Of course the problem with having so many shows available to the public like that is that it can be a crapshoot.  You may end up with a great show overall, but a song such as “Immortality” (one of my favorites) might have botched lyrics for example.

While I don’t listen to Pearl Jam as much as I used to, I still wanted a live collection from newer tours without having to comb through the bullshit.  So once I finally discovered that Pearl Jam had put out a regular live album, I went on Itunes to listen to some samples of the songs and check out the tracklist.  I must say, I was disappointed especially by the selection for the newer songs.  Two of the best rockers off of their latest album 2009’s Backspacer were left off in favor a mid-tempo and slightly boring number.  Suffice to say, I found the tracklist and the performances lackluster.  Maybe I should have gotten one of the bootlegs.

 

Steven Tyler on American Idol

I’ve only ever watched a few episodes of American Idol – never really had much interest.   Yet – I find the addition of Steven Tyler to be fascinating.  Dude is a loose canon.  He went AWOL from his band in 2009 then showed up at one of Joe Perry’s concerts totally out of his mind.  Not since Liam Gallager decided to disappear from his post as singer at Oasis’ Unplugged performance  – only to come back and heckle his brother mid-performance – has inner-band turmoil resulted in such hilarity.

This is exactly what Idol needs.  An unhinged and unapologetic character.  Simon Cowell may have been honest, but his smugness threatened to overrule any actual critique he was making.  You got the sense he enjoyed ridiculing people in front of millions.  But Tyler will be good at his job and also hilarious – though maybe without actually trying.

There are those critics who suggest someone of Tyler’s stature should not be a judge on American Idol.  He is after all, a rock star.  Kid Rock and Tyler’s Aerosmiths’ bandmates have suggested that by taking the job he has made Aerosmith into a joke.  Really?  They weren’t already?  At least Tyler has had the sense to view the whole thing with a wink.  The rest of Aerosmith just seem to be pissed that they were never in The Rolling Stones.

 

The Sell-Out Off

On Monday Night’s Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert challenged both the Black Keys and Vampire Weekend to a “sell-out off”.  Both bands are up for a Grammy for “Best Alternative Album” and both have been as Colbert says, “equally whored” their music to various television advertisements.  Obviously, the segment is hilarious (and unfortunately I couldn’t get the entire clip just the fight at the end) but it also speaks a lot about the music industry at the moment.

The fact is it’s very hard for an artist to make money and their music to the public without using their songs in commercials.  People aren’t buying records anymore.  Each year, record sales slip.  So why wouldn’t newer bands who are trying to get their music out to the public use commercials as a medium?  The old concept of “selling out” seems to be a moot point.  I don’t particularly have a problem with artists using their songs in commercials so long as their songs are written specifically for commercials.

There’s a slippery slope here.  You begin to wonder who’s whoring out to whom.  Are The Black Keys using Zale’s to sell their jewelry, or are Vampire Weekend using Honda to sell their songs?  I’m not entirely sure a lot of customers for Honda would buy one of their cars based on Vampire Weekend being used in the commercial.  But you’re more likely to buy the song by Vampire Weekend, based on seeing the commercial.  In the case of U2’s “Vertigo” from 2004 it was much more clear-cut about who was benefitting because both parties were.  Apple was using “Vertigo” in ads for the Ipod and Itunes, but you could also purchase “Vertigo” from Itunes.  Of course, there was no pretense about what was going on and it was hard to view “Vertigo” as nothing more than a jingle for Itunes.

The turn-around on selling-out may also be caused by rock and roll’s transition into mainstream culture.  In the beginning, rock music (and popular music in general) was rebellious.  This outsider status might be a reason why so many fans and artists were quick to dismiss licensing songs – “Why would we want to give away our songs to the establishment?”  As rock became the establishment itself, it’s harder to draw the lines.

 

 

Keith Richards’ “Life”

I just finished reading Keith Richards’ memoir, Life.  All of the fabled stories are there – the drug busts, the flair-ups with Mick, taking Anita Pallenberg from Brian Jones.  And when Richards can’t quite remember the details he has guests come in and fill in the details.  When I first heard that Richards was calling his book Life, I wondered if he should come up with a better title.  While Life portrays an extraordinary life – it’s also  hilarious, heartbreaking, and honest.  Basically, life in general.

Of course Richards, being Richards he’s unapologetic for most things.  He finds it hilarious that he was on the most likely die list for 10 years.  And when it comes to heroin he suggests he never over-dosed because he wasn’t greedy – he only got enough to get him high.  Take those comments as you will.  But if you go into Life thinking this is all you’re getting than it’s your loss – Richards dedication to his craft shines through every heroin and alcohol-fueled moment. Rarely has such enthusiasm for simply playing music come through in a book.

Many musicians have suggested that being in a band is like being in a gang – you can’t leave unless you die.  Richards takes this view to heart – Mick Taylor never fit in because he left.  And Richards’ fights with Mick Jagger are famous at this point.  In Richards’ world you can fuck each other girlfriends, but don’t ever abandon your post.  That’s the ultimate betrayal.  Richards is pretty vicious towards Jagger throughout Life.  Some journalists and rock critics have wondered whether The Rolling Stones will tour after Life’s publication.  I’m willing to bet yes – because I’m willing all of the criticisms and jabs aren’t anything new to Jagger.  And Richards has probably said worse to him in his face.

Which brings me to my point about the love of simply playing.  The core of The Rolling Stones love their craft, and believe in their songs and what they have to offer the public.  Sure, sometimes it can sometimes be over the top.  They’re not the same band they were in the late 60s and early 70s.  I suggested a while ago that Mick Jagger could gracefully if he put out more songs like “Old Habits Die Hard”.  It’s a great song, but I might have been wrong in my assessment.  Would you really want Keith Richards and Mick Jagger to age gracefully?  They were not graceful in the first place – that’s what made them The Rolling Stones in the first place.

Life proves that Richards doesn’t plan on aging gracefully.  He’s ready to give two middle fingers to those that think otherwise.  But more than that he’s proving that passion for rock and roll doesn’t go away with age.