Sunday, July 20, 2014

Chicago XXXVI: Now (2014)

Chicago XXXVI: Now is the former Windy City band's latest attempt at new, original music and while it's head and shoulders above the debacle that was XXX, their last album of newly recorded material (unless you count the long delayed Stone of Sisyphus), it's not what I hoped it would be.

Of the four founding members still in the group's lineup only two, Robert Lamm and trumpeter Lee Loughnane were full time participants on XXXVI. Long time second generation member, Bill Champlin, is gone too so it would be foolish of me to believe the large ensemble would record an album that sounds like their classic years. Chicago is no longer that band.

Unfortunately, my wish was fulfilled on this record and that is one of the big problems with the project. Lamm, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the eleven new tunes, is back in the saddle as the group's principal writer which means he's the person most responsible for this mess of an album. It appears that their most talented composer has finally gone stale (most of his compositions sound indistinguishable from one another) and, if that's indeed the case, perhaps it's time for the veteran act to hang up their horns and call it a day.

Loughnane is a good musician but his lyric writing is cringe worthy. His lone songwriting credit is a song called "America." Sadly he wrote, "America is you and me, Our declaration tells us we're all free and equal, No religion, no color, just people, No one better, no one worse, Everyone comes first" on his insipid track." With those last words he conjures up moldy, leftover images from Woodstock or a politically correct moment from Sesame Street. Lee, don't you realize that if everyone comes first no one does? Please stick to what you do best and simply play your horn.

Jason Scheff's usually screeching vocals are a lot of what's wrong with the title track and, when Lou Pardini (Champlin's replacement) and guitarist Keith Howland both take their turn as lead singer, Chicago proves they don't have a superb vocalist anymore.

Loughnane's lyrics aren't the only thing here that will give you a headache. The CD cover is Chicago's worst design ever. If you have equilibrium problems you should not stare at it too long. I'm sure the boys in the band don't want you to lose your balance.

It wasn't always this way. For a look at the original septet's golden era take a look at An Album By Album Analysis Of The Terry Kath Era.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Graham Nash - Wild Tales (2013)

In short, Graham Nash's Wild Tales is one of the best musical autobiographies I ever read. To his credit the singer-songwriter used a lot less ink than Keith Richards needed to tell his tale while offering us many riveting details about his personal life and solo career, as well as the careers and lives of The Hollies, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, Mama Cass Elliott, Joni Mitchell, and a whole lot more.

Nash grew up very poor in Manchester, England but unlike a lot of kids in his situation his home life was relatively stable with two parents who loved him even though his father was eventually imprisoned for theft (unfortunately it appears he was innocent).

An interesting pre-Hollies anecdote is about a 1959 battle of the bands that featured a lot of up and coming British rockers including Nash and his best friend from childhood, Allan Clarke, with whom he would eventually form The Hollies. This is where the two teenagers first encountered three Liverpool kids who at the time were calling themselves Johnny and The Moondogs. Unfortunately, The Moondogs had to leave the competition early to catch the last train out of town to return home. He wrote that if the trio had stayed for their second set John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison were already good enough to win the event.

Nash's writings about The Hollies are probably the most detailed and best account of the outfit ever set in print. He's honest about their place in history and gives Clarke much of the credit for the group's success.

The Hollies' popularity eventually led Nash to America. He fell in love with the USA and eventually became a citizen of his adopted homeland. By 1967 his American experiences contributed to his growing disenchantment with The Hollies. He longed for a new musical direction that was much more intellectual, artistic, and mature but The Hollies were happy being an excellent, hitmaking, pop machine who were justifiably proud of their accomplishments. Unfortunately for Nash they expressed no interest in expanding their musical horizons but he soon found what he was looking for in America after meeting Crosby (soon to be his new best friend) who introduced him to Stills.

At least half of the book revolves around how easy and rewarding it was to make music with Crosby, Stills, and Young and how miserable life could be dealing with them on a personal basis. Despite it all the rocker's narrative reveals that the four were like an explosive, dysfunctional family who were intent on destroying each other when together yet they couldn't stay away from each other for too long. Through it all the quartet really cared about the music they made and somehow they remain friends today.

Problems within the ranks were everywhere. Stills and Young wiped Crosby and Nash's vocals and other contributions off an album and released Long May You Run on their own. Stills stole Rita Coolidge from the author by telling the singer that Nash couldn't keep a date he made with her and then the guitarist took her out himself. Young was often late for gigs or missed them entirely.

Crosby's cocaine addiction nearly killed him, brought him a prison term, a liver transplant, and financial ruin. Nash's life became so intertwined with his friend's that the latter's troubles almost turn the last third of the book into a sad biography about the former Byrd.

It's not that Nash was an innocent bystander. He freely states that he was a hippie with a rock and roll lifestyle. He admitted to using "enormous" amounts of cocaine himself before he finally decided he had done enough and he's now been off of the drug for thirty years.

There are other highlights including lengthy sections devoted to Nash's volatile relationship with Young and a torrid love affair with Joni Mitchell about whom he wrote, "Meeting Joni did a number on my head that reverberated through my entire life." (Their relationship spawned the song "Our House.") He calls Young "the strangest of my friends" in the closing acknowledgements.

Nash also tells us about the No Nukes concerts, movie, and album that he and Jackson Browne organized. It became a prime example of CSN&Y's continuing social conscience.

There is a lot to like about Wild Tales but I have to admit I was biased before I ever read a page because I'm such a big fan of his famous group, the British Invasion, and The Laurel Canyon sound. However, the book is a worthy read for anyone who loves rock music because Nash is truly an icon. It also helps that he is quite adept at telling a story.

Buy Wild Tales From Amazon.

Check out the all of the following websites below.
Graham Nash
The Hollies
Crosby, Stills, & Nash
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Forgotten Music Thursday: Sterling Harrison - South of the Snooty Fox (2007)

This is rerun of a post that was originally published here almost seven years ago, on September 8, 2007. It's definitely worth running again.

I'm going to assume you have never heard of Sterling Harrison. Until a few weeks ago neither had I. Harrison was a rhythm & blues singer working out of Los Angeles who had a long career performing in low rent bars and nightclubs for the last couple of decades. Over the course of fifty years he made only a handful of records. The first was recorded in 1955, at age fourteen, before John Lennon met Paul McCartney and before Elvis Presley became a star. His few opportunities to put his voice on vinyl for posterity never produced anything worthwhile yet many who saw his live act swore Harrison's showmanship and vocal skills made him the greatest hidden treasure rhythm & blues ever produced.

In the 60s Harrison opened for Sam Cooke, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, and Otis Redding. While he was performing in Nashville Jimi Hendrix was a member of his band. His music has been described as "deep soul" and his voice conjures up aural images of Redding and Wilson Pickett. Bobby "Blue" Bland's wife was so impressed she made sure Harrison never opened for her husband so he wouldn't be upstaged.

Harrison's CD, South Of The Snooty Fox, was released on August 21, 2007 by Hacktone Records and it has a very interesting back story. He was discovered by Larry Gorodetsky, writer for the TV series Dharma and Greg, and actor Thomas Gibson, the show's male star, while performing in a rundown Los Angeles club. Soon thereafter Gorodetsky brought Steve Berlin, the sax player for Los Lobos, to see a Harrison show. Both were so impressed that they decided to produce an album for him, so in 2001, Gorodetsky and Berlin worked with the vocalist on a ten song disc with the goal of finally making him a star.

Unfortunately, and typical of Harrison's career, luck wasn't about to be a lady. Sadly, the singer was diagnosed with cancer shortly after work on Snooty Fox was completed and he died in 2005. The CD went into limbo until Hacktone, the label who loves to resurrect lost discs, rescued this soul masterpiece from oblivion.

On Snooty Fox Harrison fronts a four piece rock band featuring guitarist Larry Johnson whose lead lines support every song. Johnson is outstanding and his tasteful playing never upstages Harrison's performance. Individually the band members worked with all-stars such as Marvin Gaye and Barry White.

Harrison was neither a musician nor a composer so he put all of his efforts into being a stylist who interpreted other people's songs. There are rave ups, ballads, dance tunes, and even some fairly conventional pop-soul. There are a few of Harrison's concert standards including "There's A Rat Loose In My House," "I Believe In You (You Believe In Me), and "I'll Take Care of You." He covers Brook Benton, Bobby Womack, and Bland. Gorodetsky brought in a Tom Waits song, "The House Where Nobody Lives," to help make the sessions more contemporary.

Sterling Harrison performed live for almost fifty years and loved every minute of his career. Singing was virtually the only job he ever knew. He didn't drink, smoke, or use drugs because he was afraid they would be harmful to his voice. He should have been an R&B giant but he never acquired any of the rewards usually associated with a man of his talent.

You can listen to some audio clips on Hacktone's website to see for yourself what the world has been missing.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Judith Owen (with Leland Sklar) Live at Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR, June 5, 2014

Welsh singer-songwriter, Judith Owen, Harry Shearer's wife since 1993, played a free, ninety minute concert at a small Portland, OR venue with a very cool name, Doug Fir Lounge, early in June. Unfortunately, it was only in front of a small crowd of less than fifty people.

Nevertheless, everyone went home satisfied because, as good as her performance was, Owen is quite a hoot on stage. The singer-songwriter has a great sense of humor that kept the audience completely entertained. She talked a lot between songs offering up funny stories and one liners, often at her own expense. She enjoyed kidding around with people in the seats and the pianist even discussed her battle with depression that has plagued her for a long time.

Owen performed most of her new album, Ebb & Flow which is a tribute to the "American Troubadour" music she loves from the 1970s, including Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and particularly James Taylor. She wrote in the liner notes, "I fell in love with those recordings, with that classic sound, & with the consummate sidemen who helped create it." She told the Los Angeles Times of her desire to do something life affirming after her father died in 2012 so she put together this set of twelve songs dedicated to the sounds of that era.

To be authentic Owen asked three of the Laurel Canyon's more famous sidemen, collectively known as "The Section," to help her record the album. Even though they haven't played together in fifteen years bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russell Kunkel, and axeman Waddy Wachtel all accepted her invitation and they became the core of the band she employed on the sessions.

Much of Ebb & Flow is quite personal and despite her outward lightheartedness her songs are often quite serious. "You're Not Here Anymore," was written about her Father and "I Would Give Anything," is for her Mother who committed suicide when Owen was only in her teens.

In the live setting Owen only brought along Sklar who supported her electric piano. The two were ably assisted by a young percussionist, Pedro Segundo, who played a cardboard box he sat upon for most of the evening.

In addition to playing her own work Owen is known for performing unusual cover versions of songs from the decade she loves so much. Both the album and her show featured a slowed down, keyboard heavy, arrangement of Mungo Jerry's "In The Summertime" and Taylor's "Hey Mister, That's Me On The Jukebox." She also played a Jerry Goffin/Carole King oldie that is not on the disc, "It Might As Well Rain Until September" which was a hit for Bobby Vee in 1962.

It was an evening well spent and you couldn't beat the price.

Read more about Owen at her website.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Forgotten Music Thursday: The Dynamics - First Landing (LP- 1969) (CD- 2007)

This review was originally posted on May 1, 2007 and has been revised for today. Hacktone Records' website is still online but unfortunately it does not appear they have released anything in quite a few years.
Indie label Hacktone Records described themselves as "Musical revisionaries who rescue albums unjustly languishing in obscurity" because "some records just don't deserve their fate." Hacktone takes pride in releasing older music that has either long been forgotten or never got its due the first time around.

A prime example is First Landing, the debut album by R&B vocal group The Dynamics. Their first of two LPs was released in 1969 and it appeared on CD for the first time ever in 2007.

The Dynamics were a Detroit quartet who did not record for the giant Motown hit factory. Instead, their manager, Ted White, Aretha Franklin's husband, moved the singers to Memphis, and as he did with Franklin he put a bunch of all-star, Memphis, studio musicians behind them. Visualize The Temptations recording at Atlantic or Stax instead of Motown and you'll understand the sound of this album. The group was smoother than most Memphis acts but grittier (thank goodness) than Gamble and Huff's Philly soul. The sessions produced twelve top notch songs with perfect background harmonies supporting three lead vocalists who alternate between falsetto on the ballads and R&B shouting on the uptempo and dance tunes.

The album was produced by Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman who worked with Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Wilson Pickett, Waylon Jennings, and a whole lot more. It's obvious that the quartet was highly regarded and slated for the big time.

The album's best known tune, "Ice Cream Song" did well on the R&B charts but nothing else ever came close to matching it's success. The rave-up cover of Motown's "Since I Lost You" is a highlight as are "Dum-De-Dum" and "Ain't No Sun."

The Dynamics released a second album in 1973 but were never heard from again. That is unfortunate because they deserved to be stars. They could sing and harmonize with the best the genre had to offer.

Readers old enough to remember July 1969 may take note of the album cover and its title referencing the Apollo 11 Moon landing of that year.

This classic R&B album can be heard in its entirety here.