Saturday, January 14, 2017

It's Time To Stream Some Music

A recent Christmas present from my wife was Chromecast Audio, a very small device that can be attached to my Yamaha home theater receiver. It’s no more than half an inch thick and not much wider than a silver dollar. Basically, it looks like a small, black, plastic, hockey puck with a couple of wires attached.

Once Chromecast was plugged into the RCA V-AUX outlet on my system all I had to do is register it online and begin streaming music directly from my laptop. Installation is easy even for those of us who are not tech savvy. Now, I can play streamed music through my Klipsch floor speakers in beautiful, room filling, clarity.

There are additional ways to plug Chromecast Audio into traditional speakers (what some people now call "dumb" speakers) and equipment so you can use it virtually with any kind of setup. You can enjoy Chromecast by using apps downloaded to your phone or ipad or on a laptop or desktop computer.

Chromecast Audio is inexpensive too. It lists at $35, but my wife purchased one at Best Buy for only $25. You can’t buy it from Amazon because the online shopping giant considers it competition for their own Echo. I’m using it to replace my Sirius/XM subscription that was now surpassing $100 per year and because there are so many streaming sites available I have far more opportunities to hear a lot of different music.

Now it's time to move on to the reason technology such as Chromecast Audio exists and that is listening to music.

Chromecast easily works well with both Pandora and Spotify but there are lots of sites beyond those two that offer a thousands of songs, artists, and genres so let's discuss a couple of very good ones that you can use.

AccuRadio is completely free and for my money it's one of the best streaming platforms currently available. It offers over 1,000 stations. You can customize your listening by rating every song you hear. You can even ban songs and artists. Unusually, for a free service the site also offers an unlimited number of song skips.

The Chicago based outfit has stations featuring everything from classical, opera, beautiful music, Broadway, jazz, blues, all kinds of rock music and country fare, folk, singer-songwriters, and hip-hop. There are hits stations for every decade from the 1950s to the 2000s.

Examples of the unique stations AccuRadio fans can sample are "Ladies Sing the Blues," so titled because it plays only blues music performed by women. They have a Korean pop station and a French pop station.

AccuRadio pays the bills with ads on their website and with commercials on their stations. However, to greatly reduce the interruptions per hour you can sign up for a free account. There is never a fee.

The bottom line is if you can't find a station you like using AccuRadio you should not bother making music a part of your life.

Another good streaming service that is geared toward the Philadelphia metropolitan area is iradiophilly.

Unlike AccuRadio, it's a small, local service with only eight stations including a year round Christmas music station and a station that plays only Philadelphia based artists. The website has a definite local slant, including regional news and events, but the radio programming is for everyone, everywhere. Their stations are not commercial free, but the ads are strategically placed so as not to be annoying or overwhelming. They offer a great signal too.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome (2016)

The Rolling Stones are back with their first studio album since The Bigger Bang more than a decade ago and it's a surprise because there isn't a single Keith Richards / Mick Jagger original song anywhere. Instead, Blue & Lonesome offers up twelve raw covers of old blues tunes, many that predate the infamous British rockers' career.

It's been written here before that usually when an artist releases an album of all cover songs it's because he or she has run out of inspiration while they still have contractual obligations to fulfill. It is to the Stones' credit that they didn't fall into an often fatal trap by releasing an album that often puts the nail in the coffin of many formerly great and productive careers.

Blue & Lonesome comes across as a true labor of love. All of these old songs grew from the roots of the original quintet. The blues are what inspired Jagger and friends in the beginning and it's a shame the band took so long to produce such an effort.

Richards is the The Rolling Stones' Paul McCartney. He's the one who seems to care most about their legacy so what is truly amazing about this record is how much of a Jagger album it is. While the songs feature three great guitarists (Richards, Ron Wood, and Eric Clapton who plays slide guitar on "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing" and lead electric on "I Can't Quit You Baby") it's the frontman's vocals and harmonica work that stand out. While all of the axe work is quite good it is Jagger who comes across as the most engaged. Who knew he still had it in him?

The songs are by Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Magic Sam, Howlin' Wolf and a host of others.

If this is the last album by England's second most famous rock band, it's a great way to say farewell.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Quinn Sullivan Live At Concerts On The Square, Exton, PA, July 19, 2016

Photo courtesy of Karin Ricci
What were you doing at age six, still learning to tie your shoes?  A very young Quinn Sullivan appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show at that age and he later performed in concert with Buddy Guy at age eight.

Now, at seventeen, and old enough to dress himself, Sullivan is a proven guitar prodigy influenced by everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to George Harrison and Stevie Ray Vaughan, just to name a few. He's also played at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits and shared a stage with B. B. King.

Hype found on the Internet is frequently exaggerated and often strategically posted to be self-serving, but in Sullivan's case the publicity is true. This young dude can play with the best of them and his idols are often in awe of him when it should be the other way around.

Sullivan's live show at a small, outdoor venue in Exton, PA, whose Summer series is called Concerts On The Square, has frequently featured great artists who are up and coming, including future stars like Melody Gardot.   Last week the promotors added Sullivan to the list.

Sullivan's axe work was superb and his cover of "Little Wing" was an impressive thing of beauty. He also played his single and the title track from his second album, Getting There (2013).

His fretwork was jaw dropping but the soon-to-be star needs to polish his stage act. He makes little connection outside of his musicianship.  Telling us what songs he played would have been a great help to fully enjoying the evening.   But, let's remember, he is still a teenager and has plenty of time to work on his stage presence.

Sullivan's vocals are fine, nothing spectacular, but they don't need to be.  His guitar playing sings for him.

Sullivan's quartet included a keyboard player, a bassist, and record producer Tom Hambridge on drums. Hambridge has worked with King, Guy, Delbert McClinton, ZZ Top, Hank Williams Jr., Susan Tedeschi, and a whole lot more.

There really isn't a lot more to say and so the best way to introduce you to the Massachusetts native is to sample his videos below.  Be sure to listen to him tackle George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at age seven.  Simply unbelievable!

See more at Sullivan's website.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Billy Joel Live At Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA, July 9, 2016

I've never been a fan of the large, rock events at baseball stadiums because the band is so far removed from the fans that the best view is on the large video screen that surrounds the stage. It often feels like you're not really watching a live concert. That's even true for those of us with seats on the field.

I remember seeing Paul McCartney at old Veterans Stadium in Philadlephia, sitting in the lower deck seats behind the third base line. The stage was in deep right field so the great Beatle was barely visible. The giant TV screen made me feel as if I was watching a DVD at home.

This year I bit the bullet again and bought expensive tickets to see Billy Joel on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Philadelphia Phillies. My wife and I were seated in the last row of the sold out stadium's field so I was expecting a better experience, but more on that later.

As a musician and showman Joel did not dissappoint. His excellent band nailed the songs and this hall-of-famer's usually pleasing but  irreverant onstage personality shined through all night long. It was evident, despite not releasing any new music since 1993, that he still enjoys playing his distinctively impressive catalog. He trotted out many of his hits and for true aficionados enough deep tracks to make them happy. Among them were "The Entertainer" (Streetlife Serenade), "Sometimes A Fantasy" from Glass Houses, and "Big Man On Mulberry Street" from The Bridge. He also pulled out of mothballs another unexpected pleasure, the ballad "And So It Goes," from Stormfront, a minor hit single that is mostly forgotten today.

Also included was an album track that pre-dates Piano Man that Joel only plays in Philadelphia because of how the song helped his career. A live, radio broadcast from 1971 on the city's formerly influential, alternative, FM station, WMMR, 93.3 on the dial, introduced "Captain Jack" to a wider audience and was the highlight of the radio gig. It helped earn the young singer-songwriter a big time recording contract.

Joel has too many hits to play them all, especially when room is needed for three of his best and most famous album tracks: the classic "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" (The Stranger), "New York State Of Mind," and his other famous ode to New York City, the hard rocking "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)," both from Turnstiles.

Joel interrupted "River Of Dreams" to break into "A Hard Day's Night," a hit by his idols, a famous quartet from England you may have heard of, before returning to his last great song from the album of the same name.

The rest of the evening was loaded with many hits including "Uptown Girl," "Anthony's Song," "Just The Way You Are," "Allentown," "Don't Ask Me Why, "Piano Man," and more, plus all of the big, arena-rock songs that made up his encore: "We Didn't Start The Fire," "It's Still Rock and Roll," "You May Be Right," and "Only The Good Die Young."

Missing were some standards like "She's Got A Way," "Summer, Highland Falls," "The Longest Time," and "Tell Her About It" but in the end, every studio album except Cold Spring Harbor was represented.

It's too bad the volume level muddied the sound to the point of distortion. With the amps turned up to twenty it was often hard to imagine that you weren't at a Black Sabbath concert. This is not what Billy Joel shows should be about and it got me rethinking the whole idea of stadium concerts again, especially when you consider the hefty price tag attached to the tickets.

Despite the one huge drawback the sold out evening was a major event in the city that started America and everyone in attendance, including me, was very much into the whole affair.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Introducing Joe Crookston

Even though folk music is alive and well it's so far out of the mainstream these days that it's nearly invisible to those not actively searching for it. That's sad, because a lyrical talent such as Joe Crookston needs to be heard.

The singer-songwriter has recorded four CDs (one is out of print) and he tours extensively. However, despite his hard work he is quite typical of most coffeehouse performers in that he has only acquired a small fan base.

My introduction to Crookston was a free, eleven song, CD sampler I picked up at a John Gorka concert that contained tracks from those three CDs plus four other songs.

Crookston has a very pleasing vocal style that easily allows the listener to dig deeply into a song and his sparsely but cleanly produced records are a perfect setting for his vocals.

You do not need to strain to hear the lyrics from the Ithaca, NY native but you must concentrate to comprehend them. He writes about his family and the world around him. His work is much closer to traditional folk music than most of the fare offered up by today's more modern singer-songwriters.

Listen to the thoughtful imagery below on "Fall Down As The Rain". It was written in Washington State's Okanogan Forest. Crookston explained the piece in an email. "Hiking in the wilderness deeply connected me to the cycles of life and death and rebirth." He added, "Then on a more metaphorical level I know we are all one and all connected and this song explores the interconnectedness of all nature." Could it be about reincarnation?

"Good Luck John" discusses how we all have both good and bad luck and how each one can be interpreted as the opposite.

"The Nazarene" is about the writer's family, their ordinary and ultimately troubled lives.

"Georgia I'm Here" references Georgia O'Keefe.

The artist generously covers the work of others. All of us need a little assistance and sympathy from time to time Crookston tells us on his version of Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now." The sampler also includes Peter Himmelman's "Impermanent Things" and a live take of "Texas Blues" by fellow folkie Bill Morrissey.

In addition to being a solo singer and songwriter Crookston describes himself as a "guitarist, painter, fiddler, banjo player, eco-village member and believer in all things possible."

The second video below (not from the sampler) is the result of a project the composer completed recently as Artist in Residence at the Folk Alliance International Conference in February, 2016. He worked with the National World War I Museum to create an original song and painting.

His vibrant paintings can be seen on his website.