Tommy Ramone Dead, Legend of The Ramones Endures

One of the pivotal bands to emerge from the New York City punk scene in the mid-seventies, the Ramones provided a subversive antidote to much of the over-produced, over-indulgent pop and rock music of the era.

An Interview with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains

For over half a century the Chieftains have served as global ambassadors of traditional Irish music, and Paddy Moloney has been there from the very start.

Interview: John Illsley, Formerly of Dire Straits, Celebrates Survival with New Solo Album

While Mark Knopfler has enjoyed more critical and popular success since the band’s demise, Illsley has nonetheless produced a string of respectable solo works as well, including his latest LP, Testing the Water.

DVD Review: Elton John - The Million Dollar Piano

“It has to be a little over the top,” Elton says. “It’s Vegas.”

Boz Scaggs: The Instinct of a Musical Survivor

Call it intuition or a sixth sense or just faith in his own perception: Boz Scaggs knows when he’s onto something good.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Tommy Ramone, Last Surviving Original Member of The Ramones, Dead

The Ramones (from left to right): Dee Dee, Tommy, Joey, Johnny

Tommy Ramone (real name Erdélyi Tamás and also known as Thomas Erdelyi)—erstwhile drummer, founding, and last surviving original member of the Ramones—died Friday at his home in Queens following a battle with bile duct cancer. He was 65. 

One of the pivotal bands to emerge from the New York City punk scene in the mid-seventies, the Ramones provided a subversive antidote to much of the over-produced, over-indulgent pop and rock music of the era. Boasting such anthemic, back-to-basics barnstormers as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy is a Punk,” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” the band—which was rounded out by vocalist Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman), guitarist Johnny Ramone (Jim Cummings), and bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin)—riled up a fervent, loyal following at venues like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Such concentrated hype never translated to mainstream commercial success, though, but the band continued to perform and record (amid various personnel changes) throughout the eighties and nineties, earning new generations of fans along the way while laying the groundwork for future bands like Green Day, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. 

“They obliterated the mystique of what it was to play in a band,” said Eddie Vedder of the Ramones during his induction of the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. “You didn’t have to know scales. With the knowledge of two bar chords, you could play along with their records. And that’s what people did ... and within weeks they were starting bands with other kids in town who were doing the same thing.”

Tommy Ramone stopped playing with the band in 1978. Still, his identity within and contributions to the Ramones’ first crucial years remains an intrinsic part of the ongoing legend of the band he helped create.

Tommy Ramone 

Monday, July 7, 2014

An Interview with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains

For over half a century the Chieftains have served as global ambassadors of traditional Irish music, collaborating with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Chet Atkins, and Van Morrison while, with the 2012 LP Voice of Ages, recording with such relatively younger artists as Bon Iver, Lisa Hannigan, and the Civil Wars. Whether playing songs with friends or performing them on concert stages the world over, the Chieftains are known for breaking down whatever barriers or misunderstandings may exist within such contexts in order to reach a common appreciation for the music. This week, though, the group is upping the ante, hosting the Celtic Sessions, running today through Friday at the Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs, New York.  

“It’s going to be an interesting little adventure,” says leader and founding member Paddy Moloney—the group is currently rounded off by vocalist Kevin Conneff and flautist Matt Molloy—of the workshops, lectures, and live performances that lay ahead. 

“There is one concert where we’d love to get everybody who has an instrument to come and join us,” Moloney suggests. “It’s just sort of a habit I have at concerts sometime and just get them all onstage together. It could be a magic sound once we find a tune that everybody knows, which I’m sure won’t be too difficult.” 

Among the special guests also appearing with the Chieftains is guitar icon Ry Cooder. “Ry is a newcomer to this kind of thing, too,” says Moloney. “He and I are going to get together for one of the sessions, which should be interesting. I want to try as an example a new song that we wouldn’t have done together just to show how these things can come together, and it’ll be interesting for the audience.” 

No doubt it will be interesting for the Chieftains, too. Moloney agrees, adding, “I have a lot of stories to tell about the whole history of the band that I started 52 years ago.” 

(L to R): Kevin Conneff, Paddy Moloney, and Matt Molloy
Where did the idea for The Celtic Sessions come from?

It’s been there for quite some time. I’m not sure of the whole history, but there have been famous artists that have done the same thing. And we were approached from our agency [to see] if we were interested. It’s all in the same place; it’s not too strenuous. It’s not like the grueling job of touring, on the road. We’ll be in the same place for the week. It will be a pretty nice adventure, I gather. 

And of course there will be questions and answers. I encourage that a lot, for people to ask questions because it could lead to stories just the same as I am talking to you now. 

You’re known for collaborating with some rather mercurial artists, and some of them don’t particularly have reputations for playing well with others. How do you, going into those sorts of projects, bridge that? Does the music just override all that?

The music, and I know where they’re coming from. Sometimes I have  to pick up the phone and talk to somebody without having met them—a great artist, a rock band—and I just get that feeling from conversation that “this is going to work,” and then continue from there. I will be listening to their music and our music, [and asking myself], where would I see this fusion happening? What is out there to make it work?  

The Chieftains have a longstanding relationship with Van Morrison, who produces such gorgeous music but is also known for being a curmudgeon of a man. 

Yeah, I know. [Laughs] It’s funny; him and I get on very well. I respect him ... but then he has great respect for me too. When I asked him to do “Shenandoah,” for instance [he said], “I liked that a long time ago. We should’ve done that a long time ago!” And I said, “Well, look, let’s go for it here.” And I put it together, and he helped us. He sings it different every time. He’s just a genius that way. He’s come up with some great songs, some lovely songs. To me he’s the best.  

Your recording with him of “Shenandoah” is absolutely gorgeous.

It was such a joy. I’ll never forget it. It was great, absolutely wonderful. And the Irish Heartbeat album, nobody can get it because it has never been re-released. So, if you have a copy of it, hold onto it. 

In your collaborations, like the ones on Long Black Veil and Voice of Ages, what’s striking is that when other artists do something comparable it’s usually in an attempt to attract a younger demographic or a wider demographic. Your albums seem to feature artists who are turning their audiences on to you, not the other way around. You’re not accommodating the style of the moment. You’re doing what you’ve always done. 

That’s correct, yeah. To me it’s a big party, every track.... One of the ideas I had for the last album [Voice of Ages] was, “I should get back with my old friends again, Mick and Marianne and Sting,” but I decided to come down a generation. And that’s where I landed. I had a little help from T-Bone Burnett as well; he produced a number of the groups and sat in on a few of the tracks.… Those artists that joined us, those young artists, they knew us inside out, they knew what we were about and our style and playing and everything. So it was very easy for me.

Friday, July 4, 2014

DVD Review: Elton John - The Million Dollar Piano

Following the tremendous success of The Red Piano, which closed in 2009 after a highly celebrated and lucrative five-year run, Elton John returned to the Colosseum stage at Caesars Palace in 2011 to premiere an all new revue, The Million Dollar Piano. A recently released concert film from Eagle Rock Entertainment (which captures a show from 2012) reveals the Las Vegas production to be a magnificent confluence of music and multimedia, complete with a technologically tricked-out, custom-made Yamaha grand piano (at a cost of four million dollars, to be exact) and a stage set festooned with the sort of majestic, Baroque-inspired grandiosity that probably reminds the Rocket Man of one of his living rooms. 

“It has to be a little over the top,” Elton says in a supplemental, behind-the-scenes featurette. “It’s Vegas.” 

Such multimedia extravagance no doubt enriches the overall experience for those actually in attendance, although its impact is understandably a bit muted for those viewing at home. Still, the show is sensational, as Elton and his band sail through a diverse survey of one of pop music’s preeminent catalogs. If his voice lacks some of the finesse of old—the distinctive high notes on “Tiny Dancer” and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” for instance, are handled by backup singers these days—his passion is as strong as ever. Indeed the hits are invested with the conviction and vitality they deserve, yet the concert’s most thrilling moments come from back-to-back album tracks “Better Off Dead” and “Indian Sunset,” the latter featuring legendary percussionist Ray Cooper in a tour de force performance. Longtime fans will also recognize bassist John Birch, who committed suicide later the same year. If this turns out to be the last commercially released concert with him on the stage, it will stand as a most-rewarding farewell.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Interview: John Illsley, Formerly of Dire Straits, Celebrates Survival with New Solo Album

From the late ’70s through to the early ’90s Dire Straits—founded by lead guitarist/vocalist Mark Knopfler, rhythm guitarist David Knopfler, drummer Pick Withers, and bassist John Illsley—reigned as British rock royalty, selling over 120 million albums, racking up a stockpile of classic hits (including “Sultans of Swing,” “Money For Nothing,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Walk of Life”) and forging a permanent residency on radio stations around the world. 

While Knopfler has enjoyed more critical and popular success since the band’s demise, Illsley has nonetheless produced a string of respectable solo works as well, including his latest LP, Testing the Water. Enriched by warm guitar phrases and narrative lyricism, the album is informed by themes of both adversity and resilience—not least of all his own. 

In 1999 Illsley was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), an illness he kept mostly under wraps for fifteen years. “I didn’t want it to become a topic of conversation,” says Illsley. “I felt that I had it reasonably under control from what I could work out.” His condition worsened over time, however, culminating in Illsley undergoing a stem-cell transplant—his sister was deemed a match—and an extensive period of recovery. 

Illsley affirms, “I consider myself an extremely fortunate man.”  

Testing the Water has traces of some of the softer music you made in Dire Straits, with the JJ Cale-styled shuffles in particular.

That’s really the way that I’ve been sort of playing and working—with that kind of style of music—for a long time now, since Mark and I met in ’76. We had a mutual love for certain kinds of approaches to music and I suppose that just carried on over all these years. You add bits and pieces to it as you progress, but I suppose the fundamentals are always going to be there. It will have a certain resonance with the past, but I hope in some ways also that it’s not bogged down in the past.

It doesn’t sound derivative. It sounds reminiscent. 

That’s a better word. Reminiscent’s good. I don’t mind reminiscing. 

Is being a songwriter something you’ve had to grow into to be more comfortable?

It’s always quite difficult talking about songwriting. You’ve probably spoken with a few people about that in the past. I think I have grown as a writer. I would like to think so, anyway. Writing songs is most of the time, for me, a pretty laborious business, but there are certain elements of joy and clarity which emerge in the process. I just think that over time you probably just get a bit better at handling the medium. You’ve got to remember, I had quite a good teacher, in a sense, working with Mark. That’s a pretty important element in the way that I approach writing. He doesn’t really let anything go until he’s absolutely, one-hundred percent sure about it. 

There were a couple of other songs that I could’ve put on this record, for instance, which I left off because I just felt it would’ve been slightly less strong with them on it. It’s quite a short record. I think it’s less than forty minutes.… I’d rather try to get the intensity right or the attitude right—the feeling right, if you like—on those few songs and make them work as little vignettes rather than crowd it out with a lot of padding.

I don’t know about their running times, but there were a couple Dire Straits albums that had only seven or eight songs.

Love Over Gold was only five, and of course that was produced at a time when vinyl was the medium. So on one side there were two songs, “Telegraph Road” and “Private Investigations,” and there were three songs on the other side. It still took as long [to record] as an album that’s got seven or eight songs on it, but that’s the way it comes out. “Telegraph Road” is still one of my favorite songs to play. I was playing it recently with some boys over in Italy. It’s a fabulous journey. 

I was watching some old concert footage of the band in preparing to speak with you, and I was struck by the effect those songs had on some absolutely massive audiences. 

It is an extraordinary kind of thing. In some ways you never really get used to that. And of course the last tour which we did was quite a biggie. We were playing to fairly large audiences and it never ceased to amaze me how quiet they would be when we were playing something like “Private Investigations.” How thirty-five or forty thousand people could stay that quiet I always thought was quite extraordinary. That sort of mass of people can create an extraordinary atmosphere which is completely unique.

Just on a basic human level, how did you maintain a sense of purpose as a musician when you were contending with your illness? You wrote some of these songs while you were in the hospital. 

It’s a good question. What I’ve discovered, though, is that a lot of people go through some difficult things in their lives. Some are more difficult than others.… I think in some ways we spend our lives dodging bullets. Thankfully, I’ve managed to dodge a few on this particular thing, but I think the initial shock was pretty devastating to be told at the age of fifty that you’ve got ten years to live, and you’ve got two very small children and you’ve got two older children as well. Basically, I thought, I’m not going to waste any bloody time. I was painting at the time, and I carried on painting. I went to Ireland; I worked with some Irish musicians and had some fun over there. I was feeling pretty much okay because I’d already had a whole load of chemo and that’s what gave me a new lease of life for a few years; it sort of knocked it down for a bit. I just sort of carried on and, I thought, I’m just going to keep working and just take every day as it comes. I actually managed to do quite a lot in that period of time before I got hit with it hard after the second load of chemo, which really only worked for about eighteen months to two years and then I went downhill very rapidly. 

When I knew I was going to be in hospital for a month I asked if I could take in my guitar and my sketch books and all the rest of the paraphernalia I usually have in my life, and they said, “Sure.” I was in what you would call semi-isolation. You couldn’t just walk in the room. You had to have all sorts of things done to you before you came in because I was very susceptible to disease and infection. But while I was there it gave me time to think and ruminate and to work out what that was all about. One of the songs, “Railway Tracks,” is specifically about being in there. And also, in a sense, “When God Made Time,” as it says, “When God made time He made plenty of it,” and basically you’ve just got to use as much of it as you can and get on with things. It taught me a lot about myself. It taught me a lot about how other people responded to that and I got a tremendous amount of support from everybody, friends and family and such.

How long after undergoing the stem-cell transplant did you know you were out of the woods?

About a year and a half. You have to take these anti-rejection drugs for a long time. The body is dealing with a kind-of-foreign body and gradually that foreign body takes over and your own body says, “It’s okay for you to be here.” That takes quite a long time. I think I got the all-clear about eighteen months ago. About eighteen months ago I was told there was no trace of leukemia on board anymore, which was a fairly amazing day. It was quite an extraordinary moment. I have to say, we did open up a couple bottles of champagne. In a sense this album is really a celebration of survival. 

The album is not only a testament to survival but in a lot of ways, it seems, your music actually helped you through all that.

Without a doubt. I played that guitar every day in there and just fiddled around with these ideas and it just gave me a focus away from all the other bloody stuff. I had drips in me twenty-four hours a day for about a month, and every hour somebody would come in to take this and do that, fiddle around with this… Amongst all that the music just kept me absolutely centered. It was quite remarkable. 

I want people to know that it’s not necessarily a death sentence. There’s a register you can sign up to [] where you can offer your stem cells to somebody you don’t know—could be on the other side of the world—and you can help them to have a life just by lying on a bed for three or four hours. You have your stem cells taken off and you replace your own within twenty-four hours. It’s extraordinary.

For more information please visit the artist’s official website.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Review: The Motown 7s Box: Rare and Unreleased Vinyl, Volume 2

Survival of the fittest, they called it. Ensconced in a small conference room in the label’s Detroit headquarters Motown founder Berry Gordy would convene his producers and songwriters to defend their latest works, pitting one song against another to ensure that only the best ones be released as singles and album tracks. 

“If you were down to your last dollar,” Gordy would ask, “would you spend it on a hot dog or this record?” Without knowing exactly which songs prevailed over which, the ones on the just released compilation, The Motown 7s Box: Rare and Unreleased Vinyl, Volume 2, suggest the right calls indeed were made. For the most part these songs go by in an indiscriminate Motownesque blur, neither adding to the musical legacies of some of the label’s signature artists (Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & The Pips) nor to its seismic cultural contribution and influence on the whole. 

Still this set has its moments, including the Isley Brothers’ “Sure is a Whole Lotta Woman” and the Contours’ “Take Him Back If It Makes You Happy,” the latter of which features a particularly fiery lead vocal from Dennis Edwards, who would later replace David Ruffin in the Temptations to grace such classics as “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” Overall, though, it’s the rare distinction of its material that gives this collection its greatest appeal.