August 26, 2007

Live At the 2007 iTunes Festival: Paul McCartney

For the love of Ringo, could iTunes please release the entire concert from which this outstanding EP came?

Recorded on July 5, 2007 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and available for purchase exclusively on iTunes, Live At The iTunes Festival: Paul McCartney spotlights four tracks from McCartney’s current album, Memory Almost Full, along with raucous versions of two classic solo tracks, “Coming Up” and “Jet”.

Armed with his full touring band, which consists of guitarists Brian Ray and Rusty Anderson, drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., and keyboardist Paul “Wix” Wickens, McCartney sounds dynamic and invigorated in this intimate venue, which only holds 350 guests.

Loud and rambunctious, “Only Mama Knows,” arguably the best song on this collection, begins with an incongruous string arrangement, then plunges full-throttle into a rock song complete with a epitomic McCartney melody in the chorus.

“That Was Me,” an obvious allusion to his Liverpool adolescence and adventures with The Beatles, stomps along with a rollicking velocity. No longer “sweating cobwebs under contract,” as the song says, McCartney sounds as buoyant as he did at the height of Beatlemania.

Speaking of which, do you remember how McCartney’s throaty voice tore through early Beatles singles like “I’m Down” and “Long Tall Sally”? Remarkably, he has revived that rasp for “Nod Your Head,” a dizzy chunk of rock & roll that, before too long, has the listener doing exactly what the title instructs.

On the compilation’s most subdued track, McCartney dedicates “House Of Wax” to “every right-minded person in the whole world,” which gives the song’s abstract lyrics a more concentrated, social significance. One gets the impression that he’s not just playing with words when he sings, “Lightning hits the house of wax/Poets spill out on the street/To set alight the incomplete/Remainders of the future”.

Enjoyable versions of “Coming Up” and “Jet” fill in the EP, which may not offer anything drastically new if you already own either of the two live McCartney albums (Tripping The Live Fantastic and Back In The U.S.) that feature both songs. However, hearing these tracks in this intimate setting does add a certain context to the event.

The full show included choice Beatles cuts like “I’ll Follow The Sun,” “I’ve Got A Feeling,” and “Get Back,” along with a smattering of McCartney solo material. Thus, if the selected tracks that comprise Live At The iTunes Festival: Paul McCartney sound this phenomenal, one can only hope that the online retailer will inevitably release the entire performance.

August 22, 2007

Tritt Still Puts Some Drive In His Country

At his best, Travis Tritt possesses the versatility to belt out a roadhouse rocker or to sing a stirring ballad with more consistence and conviction than most of his country-music contemporaries. On his latest release, The Storm, Tritt works off those strengths, which makes for a raucous and soulful album.

With an infectious riff suggestive of ZZ Top and Hank Williams, Jr., “High Time For Getting Down” best represents the outlaw country-rock style that Tritt invariably lays down so well. Rivaling the intensity of past barnstormers like “Put Some Drive In Your Country” and “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” this song will likely become a staple of Tritt’s fiery live shows.

Likewise, the rough yet steady rumble of “Doesn’t The Good Outweigh The Bad” and the southern funk of “Rub Off On Me” sound like prime material for late-night line dancing and barroom jukeboxes. As well, “Somehow, Somewhere, Someway” recalls a guitar groove that Stevie Ray Vaughan had to have inspired during some sweltering Texas flood.

With his Georgia-bred voice resonating deep and distinct, Tritt delivers the album’s most sensitive performance on “I Don’t Know How I Got By,” a tender ballad that questions the meaning of life without having someone in it to love.

Just as expressive, yet evoking a more menacing sentiment, “The Pressure Is On” speaks of a man’s conflicted conscience in loving two unwitting women at the same time. Before the hum of a gospel organ underscores the tension, Tritt begins the track with an acoustic guitar, moaning, “I got someone back home/Don’t know what’s been going on/Thinks I love her and her alone/And the pressure is on”.

Overall, The Storm symbolizes Travis Tritt’s consistent ability to make music with conviction, music that doesn’t resort to cliché or contrivance. The songs sound inspired. The subjects and the emotions they convey sound genuine. In the end, that’s really all one can ask for in music.

August 20, 2007

Album Review: Elvis Presley – Viva Las Vegas

When Elvis Presley commenced his first run of concerts at Las Vegas’ International Hotel in 1969, he needed to prove – to his fans, to his critics, and to himself – that he could still deliver the goods in a live setting on a consistent basis. His “comeback” television special the year before illustrated that he still possessed the voice and charisma of old, but Presley hadn’t performed a genuine concert, and certainly not a succession of them, since 1961.

Comprising fifteen tracks recorded live between the years 1970 – 1972, along with the original 1963 studio version of the title track, Elvis: Viva Las Vegas offers ample evidence that the King of Rock & Roll could not only still elicit a staggering stage presence, but that he could also cover other artists’ material with incomparable sincerity.

Given the regularity of his Vegas performances (and the fact that patrons took in multiple shows), Presley wanted to continually alter the setlist with fresh material, which resulted in him mixing cover versions in with songs from his own back catalog. This compilation spotlights those interpretive renditions.

In a thoroughly scorching performance, Presley sounds downright guttural on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”. Finishing off the song’s most erotic line, he adlibs an urgent growl, “Baby, baby, I’d get down on my knees for you…if this suit wasn’t too tight!”

In an engaging display of showmanship, Presley prefaces “Polk Salad Annie” with a yarn about growing up in the South, essentially giving the women in the audience a few extra moments to moan before the band kicks in with the bluesy groove.

Other highlights include “The Wonder Of You,” which yielded Presley’s first live single, reaching the top ten in America and number one in Great Britain, as well as “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” both becoming staples of his live shows for the rest of his life.

In the album’s liner notes, it mentions the response Presley offered when asked how he decided what cover songs to perform. With his inimitable southern charm, he simply replied, “Just sang my favorites. That’s all.”

Presley may have lacked for taste in decorating the Jungle Room, but he certainly knew how to choose a good song. Elvis: Viva Las Vegas illustrates that he had the inherent talent to pull off thrilling performances of them as well.

August 17, 2007

Lori McKenna, Beautifully Unglamorous

With four independently released albums to her name, Lori McKenna earned a reputation as a talented singer/songwriter whose songs have been covered by the likes of Faith Hill and Sara Evans.

Now, on her Warner Brothers debut, Unglamorous, McKenna employs her songwriting skills, capable of creating songs with potency and substance, into an album of direct and immensely affecting music.

McKenna’s narrative approach to songwriting, along with her forthright way of singing, makes for a familiar, unembellished sounding album. Yet, lest one deem such a style simple or effortless, crafting such an informal feel — to where it’s believable — requires notable skill. For instance, on one of the album’s finest songs, “Drinkin’ Problem,” McKenna sings, “No, I never touch the stuff/But honey I’ll tell you what/You can’t count all the ways it touches me”. Once she hits those lines, the listener recognizes the adroit and poignant paradox of the lyrics in relation to the context of the song. McKenna’s plaintive vocal only makes it all the more heartbreaking.

By its nature, the narrative lyric structure allows McKenna to assume various first-person roles and viewpoints, much like a prose writer would do in a short story or novel. On “Written Permission,” she becomes a disgruntled wife, unleashing a sonic pink slip to the other (and clearly not-better) half of a damaged marriage. With vitriol in her voice, she sings in repetition, “You can go now/You can go now,” effectively marching the unfit husband out of the picture for good.

Through the use of lyric imagery, a song like “How To Survive” further contributes to the accustomed quality of the album. In this song of utter disillusionment, McKenna depicts an aimless existence amid a stalled relationship. In a frustrated tone, she sings, “How come we keep this TV up so loud/What are we so afraid of that we keep drowning out,” thus evoking the palpable stress of such a bleak reality.

With such weighty subject matters, it’s worth mentioning that the songs on Unglamorous don’t sound disheartening. On the contrary, they resonate with a definitive, and often affirmative, expression. McKenna’s narrators may not know all the answers, but they do understand the scope of their problems and limitations.

Ultimately, what makes this album so affecting comes from Lori McKenna’s straightforward proficiency in writing about common problems and ordinary experiences. Unglamorous undoubtedly speaks of frustration and disillusionment, but also of loyalty and love despite its drawbacks. Quite simply, the album addresses life.

August 13, 2007

Nice and Rough: Tina Turner - Rio ’88 Live in Concert

In the late 1970s, Tina Turner worked as a Las Vegas lounge act, a performer known more for her past than for any effort she was making to move beyond it.

On January 16, 1988, however, she entered Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to an ecstatic audience of 180,000 like a triumphant heroine.

Recorded on the final night of her Break Every Rule world tour, Tina Turner: Rio ’88 documents the Queen of Rock & Roll in all her exhilarating glory, thrilling a massive Brazilian crowd, marking the apex of the mother of all music-career comebacks.

With only thirteen tracks, most of them from Turner’s two 1980s smash albums, Private Dancer and Break Every Rule, this DVD doesn’t comprise an entire concert. It does, however, capture the spirit of Tina Turner’s hard-earned resurgence to mainstream success. Also, and perhaps most importantly, it offers sufficient evidence as to what made this woman one of the most riveting and legendary live performers in music.

“Are you ready for me?” she asks at the start, like a cautionary warning.

Once the music begins, Tina Turner explodes in full force with a raw version of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” that, for all intents and purposes, switches ownership right then and there. While belting out “Better Be Good To Me,” she dances and struts around the stage like (or better than) Mick Jagger. And once she hits the bridge to “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” Turner looks and sounds like she has conquered the world.

More-subdued performances, like “Private Dancer” and “Paradise Is Here,” underscore Turner’s colossal strength and versatility as a vocalist. Her tempered, soulful version of The Beatles’ “Help” stands out as one of the finest highlights of this show.

With fireworks cascading over the stadium, Turner ignites on “Proud Mary,” gyrating, jumping, kicking, shimmying, and singing to the Credence Clearwater Revival classic that she had transformed into her own signature anthem.

Though, as indicated, Tina Turner: Rio ’88 does not make for a full show, it does offer the essence of a Tina Turner concert of that era. In doing so, it documents the immense talent of one iconic woman who exuded the energy, sex, and sweat of Rock & Roll better than almost anyone before or since.

August 09, 2007

Waiting On the Weather To Change: John Mayer, Live in Tampa

John Mayer: August 7, 2007 (photo by Donald Gibson)
A rack of guitars stood idle, covered by a clear plastic tarp. Roadies stood at the edge of the stage, on the lookout for lightning in the distance, all while a wicked downpour hovered over the Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa, Florida. The rain made the audience under the canopy nervous as it soaked thousands sitting out on the lawn. At any moment, it appeared that the concert would be called off.

After an extended delay, and with the rain still falling, John Mayer determinatively took to the stage, his signature Fender Stratocaster already strapped on his shoulder. With his band at the ready, he unleashed a crying blues instrumental, seemingly willing the storm to stop.

To the relief of the crowd, predominantly female, the inclement weather soon simmered. Mayer commenced, fittingly, with “Belief,” and the show carried on as scheduled.

In a loose and playful mood, Mayer interacted with audience often. “That’s like an eye chart,” he joked about a lengthy message on one of several posterboard signs held aloft in the audience. “Whatever happened to ‘Do me?’”

The high spirits carried over to the music, which sounded soulful and funky as compared to the more concentrated blues he often injects into his performances. “Good Love Is On The Way,” an early highlight with its propulsive groove, fired the fans up and onto their feet. “Waiting On The World To Change” followed in similar fashion, with Mayer howling out the words to his most socially conscious song to date.

The most sobering moment in the set, and arguably its finest, came courtesy of “Gravity,” which Mayer introduced as a “soulful ballad.” He delivered the poignant song in flawless form, throwing down a wrenching guitar solo before segueing into a bit of the Otis Redding classic, “I’ve Got Dreams To Remember.” The main set concluded with a funkified version of the Ray Charles gem, “I Don’t Need No Doctor” followed by one of Mayer’s most introspective compositions, “In Repair.”

Sardonically prefacing it as “the greatest song ever written,” Mayer began the encore with an acoustic version of “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” much to the delight of the female constituency.

The final song of the night, “I’m Gonna Find Another You,” saw Mayer’s band laughably dressed in matching outfits of red shorts, white tank tops, and knee-high socks. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Mayer mocked as he sang the otherwise somber song.

All kidding aside, Mayer thanked the thousands who had braved the rain to watch his performance. For those in attendance, not only was John Mayer’s musicianship more than evident, but so too was his genuine appreciation for his audience.

August 06, 2007

Album Review: Van Morrison - The Best of Van Morrison, Volume 3

If your interest in Van Morrison’s latter-day recordings runs deep enough that The Best of Van Morrison, Volume 3 initially seems worthwhile, chances are you already own most of the albums from which these songs originated.

While Morrison’s first two “best of” volumes compiled essential hits and vital album cuts spanning his career to date, this third installment gathers an arbitrary hodgepodge of songs dating back to only 1993.

Dedicated listeners will instinctively take issue with the subjective song selection while casual fans will get an impression of Morrison’s contemporary music that may not be altogether accurate. The major flaw with this compilation is that it illustrates Morrison’s every artistic whim of the last fourteen years (of which there are several), and, in doing so, it fails to yield a concentrated focus.

Nearly half of this set consists of collaborations with other artists, which contributes to the set’s overall inconsistency. Some of these songs are remakes of Morrison classics, like “Moondance” and “Tupelo Honey,” while others are one-off performances that sound more like indifferent diversions rather than sincere artistic efforts.

There are exceptions, of course. “Sitting On Top Of The World,” the blues staple made famous by Howlin’ Wolf and, later, by Cream, delivers a thumping rockabilly groove with Morrison wailing with the late Carl Perkins.

“Shenandoah,” a collaboration with the Chieftains, sounds like an angelic Irish hymn, with its lush orchestration and vocal choir.

And, “Crazy Love,” a live duet with Ray Charles at the 2003 Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony, is perhaps the only instance on this collection when Morrison gets vocally upstaged. In one of his final live appearances, Charles put the Genius treatment on one of Morrison’s most tender songs, making this a truly iconic performance. Incidentally, this version is also included on Charles’ posthumous album, Genius Loves Company.

On his own, yet surely inspired by Brother Ray, Morrison sings a moving rendition of “Georgia On My Mind,” adding his own inimitable vocal runs and howls to the hum of a church organ.

Other highlights of the solo selections include the poignant “When The Leaves Come Falling Down” and the heartening “Days Like This”. The inclusion of “The Healing Game,” a moving gospel song of redemption (from the album of the same name), makes one question the omission of other gems from that record, like “Rough God Goes Riding” or “Fire In The Belly”.

Be that as it may, Van Morrison still possesses one of the most soulful voices in music. “Stranded,” from 2006’s Magic Time, proves it. Had it been included here, “Just Like Greta,” from the same album, would have served equal, if not further, confirmation.

Certainly, Morrison’s talent does not come into question with this compilation. Rather, the random song selection and excessive duets give listeners an uneven impression of that talent.

On the whole, casual fans would have been better served by a single-disc compilation (like its two predecessors), excluding most of the duets and including more representative album cuts. Devoted listeners, conversely, and in all likelihood, own the necessary, original, and essential Van Morrison recordings already.