April 30, 2008

Winwood Keeps On Running with Nine Lives

In 1965, the Spencer Davis Group issued its first single, “I’m A Man,” which introduced the world to a rhythm and blues wunderkind named Steve Winwood. An innately soulful vocalist and musician – particularly on the Hammond organ – Winwood would, over the next four decades, play an eminent role on a range of seminal albums, including those made with Blind Faith, Traffic, and under his own name.

When he performed with former Blind Faith comrade Eric Clapton this past February at Madison Square Garden, Winwood fared particularly well with his more diverse Traffic material. In playing songs like the blues-heavy “Pearly Queen,” the cryptic “No Face, No Name, No Number,” and the surrealistic “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” he bore out the spectrum of his versatility.

From that eclectic spirit comes his latest solo album, Nine Lives, which finds Winwood drawing on an amalgam of styles and influences. Loose, spiraling rhythms and percussion give much of the music a fusion sound tinged with jazz and Latin subtleties. “We’re All Looking” and “Dirty City” – the latter featuring a boiling Clapton solo – jangle and surge to kinetic, tumultuous grooves. The presence of flute and saxophone, both beautifully played here by Paul Booth, adorn lilting songs like “Other Shore” and “Fly,” imparting an ambient mood that sprawls across the album.

This music’s unfailing and most rewarding element, as one would hope and expect, is Winwood’s singing as well as his work on the Hammond, both of which resound mightily here. His vocal phrasing and fluidity often turn out lyrics as inflections, as on “Raging Sea” and “Secrets,” evoking something ultimately more affecting than the words themselves. When his voice ascends to reach the organ’s sanctified strains on “At Times We Do Forget,” the synergy is, quite simply, exhilarating.

In ways both appreciable and mystifying, Nine Lives encompasses the breadth and scope of Steve Winwood’s musicality. The songs recall the progressive phases of his late-sixties and seventies endeavors, yet they come across as neither dated nor unoriginal. To the contrary, the music sounds challenging and inspired, making for a solid album that will – forty-three years after his first
release – give further credence to Winwood’s longevity.

April 28, 2008

Book Review: Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years (Updated Edition)

On the surface, this book tells the story of a legendary band. Technically speaking, though, the band in question really isn’t a band at all, at least not in the rock ’n’ roll “group” connotation. Consider its principal members, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, more as auteurs of a joint enterprise, if you will.

Basically, these two jazz and literature buffs from Jersey write their own stuff – weird stuff – while utilizing the skills of proficient musicians to interpret it, yet not always (and more often than not) by using the same musicians. More to the point, they interchange session players like most bands swap out guitar strings and drumsticks.

In Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years, author Brian Sweet traces the history of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s songwriting partnership, giving the reader a meticulous account of some of the most enigmatic, cynical, and hippest sonic compositions in modern music. First published in 1994 following the Dan’s long-awaited comeback to concert performing, this updated edition (released March 2008) covers the making of their successive albums, Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, as well as Morph the Cat, Donald Fagen’s third solo release.

While this book doesn’t reveal much in the way of personal specifics, it does, however, chronicle Steely Dan’s emergence and progression within context of the 1970s music scene. Recalling an era saturated with sentimental pap, the author illustrates how albums like Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam, and Aja injected the zeitgeist with biting lyrical satire and cunning embellishments of traditional song forms. The Eagles or Three Dog Night they weren’t; Steely Dan didn’t convey any “Peaceful Easy Feeling” or “Joy To The World” vibes whatsoever, yet their songs undeniably resonated both with critics and record buyers.

The most illuminating aspect of Steely Dan covered here – which will interest fans and drive detractors to the brink of insanity – is Fagen and Becker’s infamous and meticulous work ethic. Before the days of digital recording and modern computer technology, most Steely Dan albums resulted from inordinate amounts of painstaking performances and production. The author sheds light on extensive (and expensive) recording sessions as well as the minutiae involved in mixing and mastering songs. Sardonically commenting on the fastidiousness that he and Becker applied to their craft, Fagen is quoted as once saying, “This is music, music we care about. We don’t make records to find girls. We already have girls.”

Drawn from a myriad of source material and rendered with considerable insight, Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years reveals the lowdown on a “band” that conformed not to convention or popular style, but rather to the rhythm of its own quirky groove.

April 26, 2008

Blood Brothers To The End: Springsteen Honors Federici in Emotional Concert

An accordion lay beneath a lone spotlight. Meanwhile, nine musicians stood onstage in solemn tribute, their backs turned from the audience as they looked up at a giant screen. To the soundtrack of “Blood Brothers” playing over the PA system, a video montage memorialized Danny Federici – founding member of the E Street Band – who’d died from cancer only six days earlier and whose funeral took place the day before.

With the late musician’s usual station at the organ riser left vacant, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band commenced with “Backstreets,” its signature prelude – on this night – sounding ever like an elegy. “We swore we’d live forever,” Springsteen sang, wrenching in his delivery, as the song rumbled through its second refrain.

Afterwards, Charles Giordano, who has stood in for Federici since his final full performance last November, gracefully took the stage to round out the band. As well, Patti Scialfa was on hand for the first time on this leg of the tour.

His grief palpable, Springsteen summoned unwavering resolve and spirit to deliver a rock ‘n’ roll show for the ages. He revisited old haunts and old flames, nights on the neighborhood boardwalk, and souped-up cars that race in the streets. The ecstatic audience, which numbered over 16,000 strong, offered its collective empathy, condolence, and encouragement along the way.

After barreling through the nostalgic rebellion of “No Surrender,” he dusted off “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” as pianist Roy Bittan played Federici’s iconic accordion part. “We better get this one right,” Springsteen said beforehand, smiling. “Someone’s watching.” He sustained the wistful mood with “Growin’ Up,” which he prefaced with the concession, “All right, one more fairy tale.”

Wild and innocent sagas aside for a while, Springsteen tore into some of his darker, more intensive tracks, beginning with “Atlantic City,” its line that “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact” feeling prescient under the circumstances. He yielded the focus on “Because The Night” to Nils Lofgren, who commandeered a blazing guitar solo. Not stopping between songs, Springsteen descended into “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” before the erotic throb of “She’s The One” raised the proverbial roof.

In the midst of reminiscence and revival, Springsteen made room for some Magic in the night. “Is there anybody alive out there?” he howled as he ripped into “Radio Nowhere” with a vengeance and a shredding guitar. He plowed through “Gypsy Biker” with stark venom in his voice while, on “Long Walk Home,” he led the audience in echoing its poignant chorus.

Harmonica at the ready, he ushered in “The Promised Land” – as Clarence Clemons consummately wailed on the saxophone – setting the pace for a solid conclusion to the main set. With his wife by his side, he played a particularly touching version of “Brilliant Disguise,” a song seldom performed yet beautifully done so here. And in one of the most thrilling selections of the show, he sang “Racing In The Street,” his voice weary yet resilient as the music ascended from a solo piano to a full-band arrangement. With “Badlands” and “Out In The Street,” both anthemic as always, the Boss brought the set to its vigorous climax.

“Thanks for helpin’ us through,” he said appreciatively to the audience upon his and the band’s return to the stage. With everyone reconvened for the encore, they played a lively, bluegrass version of the inspirational chestnut, “I’ll Fly Away,” in special honor of Federici.

To a seismic response from the crowd, Springsteen then directed the band to play “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” which a fan had requested with a sign near the stage (that he later autographed and returned to its joyful owner). From there, he powered through “Born To Run” with the house lights on, rocking that classic like it was his latest smash. He kept the momentum going with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” before shuffling into “American Land,” which brought this emotional and triumphant concert to a close in grand style. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how they send off a friend on E Street.

April 18, 2008

Teardrops Down On E Street: Danny Federici Dies At 58

Danny Federici, a founding member of the E Street Band, died Thursday at age 58 following a three-year battle with melanoma.

On his official website, Bruce Springsteen pays tribute to his bandmate and friend, writing, “Danny and I worked together for 40 years - he was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure natural musician. I loved him very much...we grew up together."

Indeed, as keyboardist and organist in the E Street Band, Federici occupied an essential role in defining the sound and scope of Springsteen’s music. Songs like “The Promised Land,” “Kitty’s Back,” “Because The Night,” and “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” feature distinguishing performances by the musician known affectionately as the Phantom.

Last fall, Federici assumed his usual role on the road, touring in support of Springsteen’s latest album, Magic. However, following an emotional concert on November 19 in Boston – the last night of the tour’s first leg – a statement was released, revealing Federici’s illness. Charles Giordano, who played with Springsteen on his 2006 album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, as well as on the tour that supported it, has stood in for Federici on all subsequent dates.

Federici’s very last performance with the E Street Band occurred on March 20 in Indianapolis, where he made an impromptu appearance, playing several songs toward the end of the show.

With a world tour still ongoing and heading to the American Southeast, news of Federici’s death prompted Springsteen to postpone his next two scheduled concerts, Friday night in Ft. Lauderdale and Saturday night in Orlando. Information regarding rescheduled dates has yet to be announced, but ticket holders are urged to check with Ticketmaster or venue websites for impending details. As it stands now, Springsteen will resume his tour on Monday, April 21 in Tampa.

Also stated on Springsteen’s website, “The Federici family and the E Street family request that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund.” The foundation’s website serves to accommodate online contributions as well as to honor Federici’s memory.

April 16, 2008

Springsteen's Reason To Believe: Barack Obama

In a letter posted Wednesday on his official website, Bruce Springsteen announced that he is endorsing Democratic Senator Barack Obama for president. “I have now seen enough to know where I stand,” the musician writes. “Senator Obama, in my view, is head and shoulders above the rest.”

A outspoken critic of the current Bush administration, Springsteen notably participated in the 2004 Vote For Change tour – which featured a range of artists including John Fogerty, James Taylor, R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, John Mellencamp, and Jackson Browne – in support of Democratic Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Yet while he has addressed populist themes and societal struggles in his music for decades, Springsteen has only defined and affirmed his personal political views publicly in recent years.

In expounding on his decision to support Obama in this year’s election, he asserts, “He has the depth, the reflectiveness, and the resilience to be our next President. He speaks to the America I've envisioned in my music for the past 35 years, a generous nation with a citizenry willing to tackle nuanced and complex problems, a country that's interested in its collective destiny and in the potential of its gathered spirit.”

Indeed, Springsteen underscores issues and conflicts that the United States presently contends with on his latest album, Magic. His narratives – of death, disillusionment, and moral decay – function not only as rock or even protest songs, but also as indictments against what he believes are the destructive consequences of a corrupt administration.

Currently on tour with the E Street Band, Springsteen is set to begin a three-night residency on Friday night in Florida, the state that notoriously factored in ceding the presidency to George W. Bush in the first place.

“After the terrible damage done over the past eight years, a great American reclamation project needs to be undertaken,” he maintains. “I believe that Senator Obama is the best candidate to lead that project and to lead us into the 21st Century with a renewed sense of moral purpose and of ourselves as Americans.”

Lindsey Buckingham Shines on 'Live At The Bass Performance Hall'

Lindsey Buckingham acquired a reputation over the years as that of a meticulous, often-eccentric musician and producer, one known for spending inordinate amounts of time painstakingly crafting albums until their fruition. And while his scrupulous talents certainly facilitated much of Fleetwood Mac’s greatest success, such hasn’t been the case for his infrequent solo endeavors. As Buckingham demonstrated on his superb 2006 release, Under The Skin, though, commercial success doesn’t necessarily equate with excellence.

On the road in support of the album, he treated audiences to the fruits of his labor with songs culled from both sides of his career. Live At The Bass Performance Hall, recorded in January 2007, captures the spirit of that magnificent tour.

Buckingham thrives in the intimate setting, the ruminative tone of his newer material casting an entrancing and illusory pall over much of the performance. His finger-picking style of guitar playing sustains the delicate melodies of “Not Too Late” and ”Shut Us Down” while, on “It Was You” and “Castaway Dreams,” beguiling harmonies and echoes abound.

He rearranges some older solo tracks to reflect the prevailing, pensive mood as well. Most strikingly, he strips “Go Insane” and “Trouble” of their original vim and pop gloss until they sound like harrowing confessions.

Not surprisingly yet sensational nonetheless, Buckingham delivers some of his finest, most animated moments when drawing from his catalog with Fleetwood Mac. On “Big Love” and “Never Going Back Again,” he sings with fervid intensity while further demonstrating his dexterity on the acoustic guitar. With an electric guitar in tow, he tackles “Second Hand News” and “Go Your Own Way” with rigorous enthusiasm. And he burns through a nine-minute version of “I’m So Afraid,” capping it off with a smoldering solo.

One final impression of this album – aside from the intrinsic merits of the performance – is that, for all the time and effort that he originally spent composing these songs, Lindsey Buckingham makes it all seem worthwhile. Live At The Bass Performance Hall will accordingly reward listeners for their consideration.

April 10, 2008

I Said Good Day! --- That '70s Show Takes One Last Hit

What a long, strange trip it’s been…in Forman’s basement. Indeed, over the duration of That ‘70s Show, the gang from Point Place, Wisconsin evolved from a bunch of offbeat and mischievous kids to, uh, a bunch of offbeat and mischievous young adults. The eighth and final season is now available on DVD, bringing the television series to a bittersweet – yet mostly disappointing – conclusion.

Perhaps the show should have wrapped up with the seventh season finale. Much to the dismay of his mother – and of his girlfriend, Donna (Laura Prepon) – Eric Forman (Topher Grace) departed for a teaching apprenticeship in Africa. Hyde (Danny Masterson) realized his love for Jackie (Mila Kunis), only to discover her in a compromising situation with Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), inciting the last throes of their rocky relationship. For the most part, the storyline had run its course and suggested a sense of symmetry as well as finality.

As a result, the eighth season offers little in the way of character or plot development, even as it draws its last laughs. The addition of Randy (Josh Meyers) to the gang seems a vain attempt to compensate for the unequivocal void of Eric’s absence. And once Kelso moves to Chicago (early in the season), the prime catalyst for their hijinks goes away as well.

The most incongruous scenario of the final season occurs with the burgeoning and ultimate courtship of Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) and Jackie, an outcome so contradictory to the entire series’ narrative arc, it comes across as a contrived and blatant rendering of a happy ending.

The legitimate and most-anticipated conclusion, of course, comes when Eric unexpectedly returns to Donna in the final moments of the series. Their relationship, from childhood friends to high school sweethearts, had long served as the centerpiece of the show. And so in a moment reminiscent of their first kiss – on the hood of the Vista Cruiser after a Todd Rundgren concert – Eric and Donna reunite as “Hello It’s Me” plays out the scene and, at last, the series. If only for this poignant culmination, fans of
That ‘70s Show will find rewarding closure to what, for most of its run, has offered a clever and comical diversion from reality.

April 06, 2008

Album Review: George Michael is Back with Twenty Five

George Michael has garnered more notoriety for his personal life than for his music in recent years, yet despite the headlines he remains an exceptional artist, his voice among the purest in the modern pop era. Twenty Five, a new compilation of hits and newer tracks, serves as a sufficient, albeit not comprehensive, sampler of the versatility and sophistication that underscore his talent.

Released on the heels of a much-anticipated North American tour announcement, the set reflects all phases of a career spanning a quarter century, hence the album title. Early hits with Wham! mix among solo works and various duets. Six tracks previously unreleased in North America – the best of which is a duet with Mary J. Blige on the Stevie Wonder classic, “As” – round out the considerable 29-song tracklisting.

In highlighting all stages of George Michael’s career thus far, the cumulative impression is one of a gifted artist often overshadowed and underrated by his enigmatic image. Reconsidering the context of their respective eras and original albums, though, several of these songs, particularly “A Different Corner” and “One More Try,” reveal thematic depth and maturity seldom expressed by his pop contemporaries (Prince being the most obvious exception). As evidenced by later introspective ballads like “Jesus To A Child,” “Older,” and “John And Elvis Are Dead,” Michael’s youthful sophistication evolved over time to yield songs of even more refinement and distinction.

Of course, not all of Michael’s work bears such lyrical contemplation or musical nuance; nor does it always require them. “Too Funky” and “Faith,” for instance, bask in their licentious glory, drawing more on raw emotion and groove than on concentrated songwriting. “Everything She Wants” still sounds modern and hip with its thick and synthesized beats. And “Feeling Good,” a recent cover that recalls its former rendition by Nina Simone, features Michael crooning over a billowing brass romp.

As with any retrospective compilation, though, omissions often stand out as much as what ultimately make the final cut. Songs like “I Want Your Sex,” “Monkey,” and “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” – all number one hits – are conspicuously absent here. Also missing is Michael’s towering performance of “Somebody To Love,” recorded at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and released on the EP, Five Live.

Even keeping such exclusions in mind, though, Twenty Five still makes for a respectable collection and, by extension, a welcome preview for George Michael’s long-awaited return to the North American concert stage.