Friday, May 20, 2005

A Tribute to Ed Sciaky

Mining the archives I found this article about legendary Philadelphia disc jockey Ed Sciaky who died in January 2004. This year old column was written about Sciaky in the days immediately following his death. The writer was a fellow disc jockey with Sciaky for a time about 30 years ago. It appeared in The Philadelphia Daily News on January 30, 2004.

Radio's Ed Sciaky dies. Fan and friend of musicians stricken in New York

by Jonathan Takiff

Ed Sciaky, a legend in the Philadelphia radio community and devoted fan and friend of many musicians, died suddenly on a street corner in New York yesterday morning. He was 55.

And for many of us, it will truly be remembered as a day when the music died.

"I'm going to be looking out there in the audience and he won't be there," said a broken up Steve Forbert, pals with Sciaky since the late '70s. "He was a Philly fixture to me, synonymous with the city."

"I loved him. I'll miss him," said Steven Van Zandt, longtime guitarist of the E-Street Band and host of the "Little Steven's Underground Garage" show that has followed Sciaky's "Sunday with Springsteen" on WMGK since April 2002.

For many a Philadelphia baby boomer, Sciaky's radio shows through the decades were literally the soundtrack of their lives, and an advanced course in music appreciation.

Always at the head of his class stood talents like Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Yes - whom Sciaky tenaciously played from "virtually unknown" status until he'd helped to make them superstars, on almost every shift of his gigs at WMMR and later WIOQ in the 1970s and '80s. That, of course, was back in the "free-form" years of progressive rock radio, when DJs could still pick the music, indulge in their passions.

"Ed was very helpful to our band in the early days of Yes, being one of the first DJs in Philly and the U.S. to adopt Yes music," said group bassist Chris Squire yesterday.

"He was a champion of music, loved and respected all kinds of music," said WXPN mid-day host and music director Helen Leicht, who worked with Sciaky at WIOQ.

"A Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester or Barry Manilow would never have gotten play on a rock-oriented station like 'Q' if it were not for him. But Ed never saw any barriers. He appreciated good music of all kinds."

And the musicians, as well. The unusually gregarious Sciaky and his wife Judy entertained many a musician at their home, and were fixtures backstage after shows, counseling the artists on what they'd done right and wrong.

"He was on me constantly to turn up my volume," said singer-songwriter Forbert, "until I finally gave in and did it. Ed could be relentless."

Sciaky's devotion to Yes was so intense that he spent vacations chasing their tour buses across the United States and England. He traveled to Leningrad to attend and voice the introduction to an internationally-broadcast Billy Joel concert.

In Springsteen's early, just-scraping-by days, the fledgling Jersey talent slept several nights on the Sciakys' green velvet sofa, forever after to be anointed the "Bruce Memorial Couch." Sciaky also earned Springsteen his first big payday by persuading Manfred Mann to cover "Blinded By The Light," a million-plus seller.

One night this writer and friend - then Sciaky's across-the-hall neighbor and WMMR staffmate - got a knock on the door at 3 a.m. inquiring if I had a guitar to spare. Bonnie Raitt and Martin Mull were over, and wanted to jam. (As I'd get to witness, the flirtatious Mull couldn't keep up with Bonnie, in more ways than one.)

Born April 2, 1948, in New York but raised in Philadelphia, Sciaky graduated from Central High and matriculated at Temple as a math major. Then a chance visit to the studios of WHAT-FM changed his life, when Sciaky brought over an album for laid-back folk DJ Gene Shay to play, and Ed became entranced with the medium and messages of radio.

"He became one of my first unpaid assistants and almost like a son," said Shay yesterday. "It was his idea, for instance, that we take along a tape recorder to a coffeehouse show, to capture this newcomer named Joni Mitchell. Ed also kept me organized. He was always very methodical, remembered everything, even the catalogue numbers of records."

Shay, in turn, became Sciaky's mentor, helping him polish his own, similarly naturalistic delivery when Sciaky switched over to the communications department at Temple, and went on the air at then student-run WRTI-FM.

From there, he graduated (circa 1969) to Philadelphia's first, full-time progressive rock station, WDAS-FM, anointed "Hyski's Underground" after program director and air personality Hy Lit. It was a place and a time so free-spirited (and indulgent) that some DJs performed their shifts while tripping on acid. But not Sciaky, then and forever a very straight arrow. He gladly welcomed the chance to move a couple of years later to the more professionally run WMMR.

Sciaky's only real indulgence was food. It earned him the title "Hungry Ed," from Van Zandt, after Sciaky would descend upon the platters backstage at Springsteen/E-Street Band gigs.

While the noose started tugging around the neck of FM rock DJs in the late '70s, with program directors forcing play lists on the air talent, Sciaky was one of the last guys with clout, spinning his favorites (no matter how eccentric) on his "Sunday Night Alternative" sessions on WIOQ. The show lasted into the early '80s.

When he moved to the classic rock-formatted WYSP in '86, though, the DJ's hands were finally tied and much of the fun went out of the gig, he'd privately grouse to friends like Forbert. But pro that he was, Sciaky's warm, comforting voice would never let on to listeners that he didn't really want to play us "another block of Lynryd Skynrd!"

"Ed's greatest frustration of the last number of years was that the radio business had no place for someone like him who loved the music and the medium and was so adept at the medium," said Michael Tearson, a colleague of Sciaky's at WMMR and recently WMGK.

In recent years, Sciaky battled diabetes and a staph infection in his right foot that just wouldn't heal. He also had kidney failure and had dialysis, but never let on to anyone but his closest friends.

A year ago, the foot had to come off, "and Sciaky really busted his chops in rehab, to master using a prosthesis," said Tearson. "And his love of music, of all kinds of entertainment, never failed. He was like a sponge - still out at concerts, at movies, at plays, all the time. He didn't have time for moping."

"Miami Steve" Van Zandt suggested yesterday that Sciaky's fans should follow suit.

"Ed Sciaky will never die. That is what being legendary is all about. As long as the music of the bands he played lives, he lives."

Besides his devoted wife Judy, Sciaky leaves behind a terrifically talented daughter, Monica, a freshman vocal performance major at Northwestern.

Services are pending.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Black 47 - New York Town (2004)

What can I say about Black 47 except that they have done it again. The Irish rockers from New York City have released New York Town, another fabulous CD, this one dedicated to bandleader Larry Kirwan's adopted hometown. The twelve songs Kirwan composed form a loosely connected concept album: every one is set in the Big Apple. Kirwan has called New York Town his "love letter" to America's largest city. Whether the song concerns romantic relationships, the immigrant experience, people on the dark side of urban life, or the awful events of September 11th that appear to have inspired him, Kirwan writes some of the greatest story songs in rock music. As always he writes with both humor and sadness and each song makes you feel the emotion he wants to convey.

In a lot of a ways this CD is typical Black 47 but the concept and an unusual abundance of star-studded musical guests help set this one apart. Roseanne Cash, who is wonderful here, sings lead with Kirwan on "Fiona's Song," a story about a lonely young Irish woman who seeks solace in the bars of Queens, and David Johansen duets with him on the upbeat "Staten Island Baby." Suzzy Roche also appears on two tracks. Fiddler Eileeen Ivers & blues lady Christine Ohlman also add to the musical textures offered here. The guest vocalists, especially Cash, color the music in a way their prior CDs have not, so while this disc may have more universal appeal than its predecessors you should not use New York Town as a gauge to determine if you love Black 47. Those already fans of the band will enjoy this album immensely.

Interesting songs are everywhere. The title track finds Kirwan delving into the political side of the attacks on New York. "Livin' in America - 11 Years On" has the identical melody and an almost identical arrangement of the same song from the band's debut CD but a whole new set of lyrics updates the lives of the feuding couple we were originally introduced to in 1993. "Fatima," is another story regarding the problems of immigrants, but this time we hear the tale of a Muslim father not coming to terms with his daughter's Christian boyfriend while adjusting to life in our world.

The highlight is "Orphans Of The Storm," a song written as a sequel to Kirwan's "American Wake," a completely different song that appeared on Black 47's 1994 CD Home Of The Brave. In "Wake," Sean, a young Irishman, leaves his native land for America. The sequel finds Sean living in New York and working at The World Trade Center on September 11th.

New York Town is another Black 47 masterwork.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Michelle Shocked Live At The Point, Bryn Mawr, PA, October 2, 2004

The very eclectic and very entertaining Michelle Shocked played at The Point, an intimate and wonderful coffeehouse style venue in the Philadelphia suburbs this past Saturday night, and just as I hoped for she played a superb and very entertaining set of music. The evening’s performance was a big surprise because it was almost totally devoted to her recently re-released, previously long out of print, 1991 classic CD, Arkansas Traveler. All the songs in the eighty-five minute performance except for the two encore pieces were from this terrific disc.

First, we need to start with some history about Arkansas Traveler. Chris Woodstra of the All Music Guide wrote "Part three of the trilogy that began with Short Sharp Shocked, Arkansas Traveler focuses on American roots music of the South, mainly rural-blues and country. According to her theory in the album's liner notes all of these songs are based on the legacy of blackface minstrels. Recorded with a mobile studio at various non-conventional locations around the country, it features an amazing array of guest musicians including Pops Staples, Doc Watson, and Gatemouth Brown." Allison Krauss, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Jerry Douglas and Bernie Leadon also appear on the disc.

Throughout the evening Shocked either played solo guitar or, when accompanied by another guitarist, she mostly played mandolin. The audience was totally engaged in her performance because she “demanded” full audience participation on several songs or she would stop the show. (I would bet the house that she was joking but considering this is an artist that once refused to go on stage because her audience was not "diverse" enough, who knows). For the title cut Shocked invited participants to come on stage and help her perform the song. Their job was to read the set up lines for several bad hillbilly jokes inserted into the middle of this "start and stop" style song while Shocked answered with the punch line. For "Hold Me Back (Frankie and Johnnie)" audience members acted out the parts of the song on stage. She repeatedly asked people to come and play guitar with her and eventually found one woman gutsy enough to play with a professional career musician onstage.

Shocked made her left-wing politics very well known even while she talked about trying to avoid heavy proselytizing throughout the performance. Her sense of humor makes her politics sound less preachy and her devotion to serious causes is what makes the onstage silliness avoid hokiness. Yet according to her autobiography in Jams, her self-published political magazine that she gives away at her concerts, she always wanted to be an activist first and a musician second.

Shocked did nine other Arkansas Traveler tracks including favorites "Come a Long Way," "The Secret To A Long Life" and "Strawberry Jam." The encore included her most well known and probably her best loved song, "Anchorage" before she closed out the concert with "Memories of East Texas" both from Short Sharp Shocked.

If Michelle Shocked comes to your town you need to see her and you must give Arkansas Traveler a very serious listen.

Find out more about this great singer-songwriter at her website.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Thrills - So Much For The City (2003)

Can five Irishmen sound like they were born and raised in sunny Southern California? The Thrills emphatically answer that question with a resounding "yes!" These young natives from the Emerald Isle are so obsessed with California they relocated to the Golden State and are now catching waves and making a big splash all over the USA. Their Beach Boys style harmonies and ultra-pleasant California and British invasion pop sounds can veer off into slight forays with West Coast country-rock complete with steel guitar and harmonica. The band's love of their adopted home shows through in such song titles as "Big Sur," the CD's best melody and arrangement, "Santa Cruz," and "Don't Steal Our Sun." The Thrills love what they play and it shows. Their melodic, light and airy sound is truly a joy to hear.

This is a fantastic album as long as you don't listen below the surface. Lead singer, Conor Deasey, has a weak but pleasant voice, and often sounds like he doesn't have the stamina to perform, but the band's arrangements manage to succesfully hide Deasy's vocal limitations so much that you barely notice.

The Thrills also need a lyricist. The songs are very sparse lyrically, most only have few lines and the words they do write frequently make no sense. On "Santa Cruz" the song is filled up by repeating the song's title twenty-seven times. Don't look for the intelligent musings of other Californians such as Jackson Browne or the self-reflecting lyrics of "Pet Sounds." You just won't find The Thrills with much to say on So Much For The City.

If The Thrills ever learn to write songs like they can play, arrange and harmonize we will be looking at something truly special.

The Basics - Bitter/Sweet (2003)

Doug Cowen has dropped the names of both Tom Petty and The Beatles when describing the music of his band, The Basics, who hail from South Bend, Indiana, but their name should give you a very big clue about the style of rock and roll they play. To my ears The Basics debut CD, Bitter/Sweet doesn't sound at all like The Beatles but they do possess Lennon and McCartney's ability to write catchy melodic pop hooks that draw you immediately into their music. The band's guitar oriented arrangements make them sound like a very accomplished 60s garage rock band. This is meant as a huge compliment!

The trio features Cowen, who composes most of the music, on vocals. He also plays lead guitar on most tracks along with some harmonica and keyboards. Bassist Charley Neises writes most of the lyrics and helps out with the music. Ben Hahaj provides a solid backbeat on drums and percussion. Occasional studio musicians sit in to augment a few of the tracks but the three band mates have no trouble playing winning rock and roll all on their own.

The Basics reel you in right away with the first track "In a Crowded Room." The song's cross-generational appeal was immediately apparent because both kids in their late teens, and adults old enough to remember actually seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, were taken in with its catchy tune and arrangement. "Crowded Room" could have easily gone Top Ten in 1966. The fun continues with the harder rocking "Bittersweet Road." "Does The Bottle Burn?" with great lyrics by Cowen and Neises, symbolically uses an empty liquor bottle to represent a woman who just ended a romance with a now lonely and broken-hearted protagonist. The guitar jam free-for-all that takes the track home is a highlight of the disc.

Less edgy tunes such as the ballad "What If and What Is" and "Every Day Rain" with its slight psychedelic feel show off the band's diversity without betraying their basic nature. They fit right in with the harder edged songs.

Modern commercial radio seldom responds to new bands playing 60s and 70s style roots rock these days. This may severely limit their audience and makes The Basics musical mavericks, reactionaries bucking the system. Their promotional material advertises the fact there is no cursing anywhere on the disc, which all by itself is an anomaly in modern popular music. Isn't it a shame a band actually has to advertise that fact?

If you are looking for great, new, straight ahead, clean rock and roll, The Basics are for you.

You can order Bitter/Sweet through Amazon.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Chicago Live at The Sovereign Center, Reading PA, November 26, 2003

The World's greatest horn band took the stage at 8PM on Thanksgiving Eve and played for 2 full hours. Chicago, who began recording in 1969, still has four original members: singer and keyboard player Robert Lamm, and the horn section of Jim Pankow on trombone, Lee Loughnane on trumpet, and Walter Parazaider on saxes and flute.

All I have to say is this: During most of the 80s recording sessions the horns may have been locked in the trunk of a car they once drove but today, on stage, they are the dominant presence. They make sure you know it is their band because that is the way it is supposed to be. The exuberance of the horns, who were front and center on the stage, and guitarist Keith Howland who was situated on the far left, was obvious. Keith was throwing roses to the crowd. Bassist Jason Scheff who was on the far right of the horns was much more serious throughout the evening. The risers in back had Bill Champlin's bank of keyboards on the left. Tris Imboden's drum kit in the middle of the risers had a specially designed bass drum head for Christmas and Lamm was on the far right with one set of electric keys. No keytar for Mr. Lamm at this point. It wouldn't be until more than half way through the middle of the show that he got up from his electric keys to play the keytar.

The evening began with each member being introduced individually to the pre-recorded intro to "We Can Stop The Hurtin." They immediately broke into the late Terry Kath's "Introduction" playing only the first half of the song which sequed very nicely into "Questions 67 & 68." Both were played very closely to the original versions but were standout performances.

Next came a perfect "Dialogue" sung so well by Bill & Jason that I didn't miss Kath and Peter Cetera at all.

The first Christmas song came next as Robert sang a nice version of "Winter Wonderland."

"If You Leave Me Now" followed and trust me on this gang. They don't need Peter. Keith makes it his own song. I much prefer the ballads done live. The horn section gives them a bite missing from the original recordings.

"Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" was followed by the evening's first David Foster era ballad and their very best: "Hard Habit To Break." Instead of synths Walter plays a brief flute solo in the intro and the song concludes with a much bigger horn presence than the original had on record, and again this is the way it should be.

"Call On Me" was great and sequed without a break right into a real rocking version of "Alive Again" the band's greatest post-Kath single. This was a surprise treat.

Lee then rocked the joint with his version of "Let It Snow." His trumpet playing hit a couple of sour notes, it didn't seem to be his best night, but still I love his vocals and version of this tune.

Jim introduced the fantastic complete version of "The Ballet For a Girl From Buchanan" which is appropriate as it is his composition. The whole suite was fantastic.

Next came the unusual part of the show. Everyone else left the stage except for Jason who sat down at an electric keyboard that was moved front and center while he sang and played solo on "What Kind Of Man Would I Be?" Bill then sat down at the keyboard while Lee sang lead and Keith and Jason gathered around one microphone to sing backup on "Wishing You Were Here." While not bad this was the low point of the evening. Lee was not able to replicate the great Kath/Cetera lead vocals nor could Jason & Keith come anywhere close to The Beach Boys harmonies. I know that maybe it isn't fair to compare their background harmonies to Carl and Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine, but I just can't help it. Bill continued at this front and center keyboard with "I Don't Want to Live Without Your Love" and while the stage was still black the full band returned and they took the song home as the lights came back on.

Keith sang "Jolly Old St. Nicholas, with both he and the band rocking hard. For the first time Robert played the keytar which he does for the rest of the evening.

From this point on the night is a celebration of their greatest songs mostly written by their two best songwriters, Lamm and Pankow. "Saturday In The Park," "Feeling Stronger Everyday" and "Beginnings" brought the crowd to its feet. One interesting surprise: on "Beginnings" Robert played acoustic guitar alongside Keith's electric.

Keith sang again on "Just You and Me." Walt's flute solo in the middle harkened back to the very early days with a very eclectic solo that included a snippet of "Jingle Bells" and a combination of humming while playing the flute simultaneously.

"Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is" was next, followed by "I'm A Man" complete with a horn chart in the second half right after Tris's drum solo. Robert threw his marracas into the crowd.

The main show closed with "Hard To Say I'm Sorry/Get Away." As the main song morphs into the rocking ending the synth intro on the record that introdces the fantastic Pankow horn chart is replaced by a Lee trumpet solo. It was a nice touch, and again David Foster should have allowed it to be done this way on record.

The encores were "Free" and of course "25 Or 6 To 4."

Kathleen Edwards - Failer (2003)

The press often drops the name of Lucinda Williams as a comparison when discussing Failer, the first release from Canadian Kathleen Edwards who is already a darling of the critics. Edwards possesses a similar songwriting style but has a smoother and softer voice than Williams.

In concert Edwards tries too hard to come across as one tough cookie, but she isn't all that convincing because she is too chatty and friendly onstage, especially when compared to Williams' more permanently dour demeanor. Whether you view Edwards as a Williams clone or not, you must admit she has put together a fine debut CD.

Edwards sings softly and very melodically on one of the album's standout tracks, "Hockey Skates," as well as on the closer, "Sweet Little Duck." She rocks out on the disc's opening track, the radio-friendly "Six O'Clock News," and even harder on "12 Bellevue" and "Maria."

Since Edwards postures herself as a rock 'n' roller rather than a singer-songwriter, her band is an important part of the music. The guitar-oriented supporting ensemble enhances the music, elevating it above the standard "girl with a guitar" fare. Occasionally Edward's voice is buried a little too deep in the mix but this only adds to the rock personality of the CD.

It is Edwards' songwriting that is getting noticed more than her band. Her very literate songs reveal an awareness of the outside world that make her appear much older than her 23 years. "Six O'Clock News" is about a man whose life falls apart "when the farm went down." His pregnant wife laments that he has taken hostages with a gun and has made the evening news. With lines like "They cleared the street and they closed the schools," you get the picture. To show her troubled man she still loves him she sings, "Gonna have your baby this coming June. We could get a little place down by Gilmore Park. You could do a little time and save my broken heart." The very happy-sounding and bouncy melody and arrangement are in stark contrast of the sad storyline.

On the acoustic ballad "Hockey Skates," Edwards sings about the end of a romance that her lover is apparently blaming her for with the line "I am tired of playing defense. I don't even have hockey skates" and "Do you think your boys club will crumble just because of a loud-mouthed girl?"

"Westby" appears to be about an affair with a much older man. "And if you weren't so old I'd probably keep you. If you weren't so old I'd tell my friends. But I don't think your wife would like my friends." Again, this is a story about being in love with the wrong person.

Edwards has been around the block more than most women her age. There are numerous references to drugs and booze, and in "National Steel" she unnecessarily lets loose with the English language's ultimate four-letter obscenity, an unfortunate occurrence that is turning up far too often in lyrics these days. Does she do this just to prove she is a tough broad? If so, it doesn't work. The subject matter of her songs continually contradicts her tough-edged exterior. On Failer, Edwards sounds as if she wants to be grown up and settle down with a nice man, but her basic nature won't allow that to happen. Failer has both the toughness and femininity so many current women rockers seem to possess.

Robert Lamm - Subtlety & Passion (2003)

For the uninitiated, or for those of you who just plain forgot who he is, Robert Lamm is the original keyboardist and one of the three lead singers of the ancient rock band with horns, Chicago. It was the great combination of the underrated guitar prowess of the late Terry Kath, James Pankow’s horn section, and Lamm’s songs that brought Chicago to the forefront of American rock music in 1969. While Lamm’s influence on the band’s music waned over the decades as it succumbed to Peter Cetera’s ballads and trendy 1980s synthesizers, he and the horn section have remained loyal members of the group to this day.

Lamm has always been the band’s best and most eclectic composer. He is responsible for such Chicago gems as “Beginnings,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Saturday In The Park,” “Dialogue,” Questions 67 and 68,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” and many more.

While the current version of Chicago still has a loyal fan base and they play to sellout audiences in many venues they have not recorded and released an album of original music in more than a decade. The reasons for this long drought generate wild speculation among the devoted but the reasons are truly unknown. Lamm has voiced his frustration with Chicago’s lack of newly recorded music but he has used the band’s creative hiatus to record his own “Chicago” album. While his past solo albums have tried to steer clear of his group’s signature sound Lamm has gone to great lengths to sound as much like Chicago as he possibly can on his recent release Subtlety & Passion.

There are horns on ten of the eleven tracks. If you appreciate the sound of mid 70s Chicago LPs like the jazz oriented Chicago VII this disc will come as a welcome surprise. All but one of Chicago’s present lineup play on S&P. Trumpeter Lee Loughnane is everywhere and turns in some of his best work ever. “Intensity” even includes a sample of an old Terry Kath guitar solo that was never used prior to now. Current Chicago drummer Tris Imboden and bassist Jason Scheff assist Lamm on every track.

While Lamm has almost never been a true avant-garde or alternative composer he has always written very creative pop music with an eclectic edge that elevates his songs into a realm of their own. Most of S&P is in the smooth jazz or light R&B vein but there are a few exceptions. “Intensity” is an appropriately named tune. Lamm’s commentaries on American life are still intact after all these years as “Gimme Gimme” so accurately proves. The song is about the entertainment business and the self-congratulatory awards they bestow upon themselves through an endless stream of prime time television programs shown every year. It may be Lamm’s way of thumbing his nose at the perennial snub given Chicago by Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall Of Shame. “It’s Always Something” co-written with drummer Imboden is the only hornless tune but even that succeeds in a way most hornless Chicago songs never have because of the edge Lamm brings to the table. Imboden’s harmonica adds a nice touch. “For you, Kate” is about Lamm's love for his daughter and it succeeds without being sappy. "Another Sunday" could be "Wake Up Sunshine" Part Two. There is much, much more.

Thank you Mr. Lamm for one of the best CDs of 2003.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Black 47 - On Fire (2001)

Black 47 make great records that suggest they rehearse more than lead singer and composer Larry Kirwan claims they do, but their stage shows continue to have a rowdy, sloppy, improvisational feel to them even when the band plays songs like “Funky Ceili” or “Maria’s Wedding,” both of which they have probably played on stage two thousand times or more.

Black 47 concertgoers are admittedly partisan and eagerly respond to the semi-drunken proceedings in their midst. The band even drinks on stage. They mostly play to small intimate crowds in bars and small clubs that enhance their stage show. The atmosphere at their shows conjures up images of what it must have been like at Liverpool’s Cavern Club to see another of rock’s bad boys, John Lennon, turn on the pre-Beatlemania crowd. So, it is fitting that Black 47 has released On Fire, their second live CD in just two years, (Live in New York City was released in 1999) because non-stop live gigging is how they earned their reputation as the house band for New York City.

The new live CD could be named Live In New York City, Volume 2 as this live material replicates the prior disc’s unrehearsed looseness of the performances, showcases the band’s vibrant, irreverent personality on stage, and gives listeners the same high quality recording by producer Stewart Lehrman who also did the honors for New York City.

Kirwan smartly makes sure none of the songs from the first live disc are repeated on the sixty-plus minutes of On Fire so if you play the discs back to back you will get a real sense of what a full two hour Black 47 stage show is like. On Fire contains music from their latest and best studio disc, Trouble In the Land, offering live renditions of “Those Saints” and “I Got Laid On James Joyce’s Grave.” A nice touch is the first appearance on a full length CD of “Our Lady of the Bronx” which until now only appeared on their long out of print 1992 EP. Excellent renditions of “Czechoslovakia,” “Bobby Sands MP,” and “Fire of Freedom” are highlights. The instrumental, “Johnny Byrne’s Jig,” isn’t quite as successful or exciting as its NYC counterpart, “The Reels,” and the cover of “Biko” which closes this disc isn’t as well played as their cover of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” which closes NYC, but all in all, this CD is another Black 47 joyride. They continue to party hardy through all of their social commentary and political statements and it is nice to know they do not take themselves too seriously while continuing to take their causes seriously.

It should be noted that this is the first CD appearance of Joe Mulvanerty, the uilleann piper who joined the band in early 2000 to replace the departed co-founder Chris Byrne who left amicably to front his own band. I agree with Kirwan who says that Mulvanerty brings a more musical pose to the band. Most of the rap and hip-hop elements that occasionally showed up in their music seem to have left with Byrne.

On Fire was recorded in Manhattan’s Wetlands on St. Patrick’s Day, 2001, three years to the day Live In New York City was recorded at the same venue.

If you have loved these eclectic Irish-American rockers in performance you will like On Fire. When on stage, Kirwan and his friends never disappoint.

An Interview With Larry Kirwan - March 1, 2001

I had the great fortune of meeting and interviewing Larry Kirwan, the lead singer, primary songwriter, and the spiritual leader behind Black 47 just prior to their live, loud and raucous rock and roll performance at Finnigan's Wake in Philadelphia on March 1, 2001.

The band arrived in Philadelphia very late, and I thought there would be no time for our conversation, but Kirwan sent a Finnigan's Wake employee to summon me upstairs at 10:30 where we would talk. This was only 45 minutes before show time. The conditions were not ideal for an interview. The music of the opening act, and the din of the crowd below us, often made conversation difficult. Listening to the tape I made of our chat for the writing of this article was even harder. Larry's words were often buried in the noise of the tape, and were sometimes barely audible, but I was still able to quote him accurately.

Unfortunately, after more than 10 years of recording and performing, Black 47 remains an unknown entity to most of the radio listening and music buying public despite their deserved accolades in high profile magazines such as Time and Rolling Stone, and TV appearances with David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien.

I hope what is printed here adds you to the growing army of Black 47 fans, or gives you a greater appreciation of the band's music.

CR: It seems you are very attached to your native Ireland. So why did you come to America?

LK: Adventure.

CR: Do you ever go back?

LK: Yeah, I go back once a year

CR: Is all your family back there?

LK: Yeah, a lot of them.

CR: Are you an American citizen?

LK: Yeah.

CR: How long have you been here?

LK: Over 20 years now.

CR: What gives you more satisfaction, composing, recording or performing with the band or writing or producing plays?

LK: I like them both. When I'm doing one I kind of long for the other sometimes.

CR: Do you act?

LK: No, never acted.

CR: Where are most of your plays produced?

LK: All around. Most in New York, some in Ireland, one's been in Liverpool.

CR: The Philadelphia area has over 40 radio stations that play music but Black 47 is never played on any of them. I only heard about you because I went to a Borders and listened to your album at one of their listening booths.

LK: XPN plays us occasionally.

CR: I listen to XPN** all the time and I've never heard you played.

LK: Yeah. They don't play us very much. We were on The World Cafe** there last year.

**Editor's Note: The World Cafe is a Nationally syndicated radio program featuring adult alternative music which originates from WXPN, 88.5 FM, Philadelphia, a non-commercial alternative music radio station owned by The University Of Pennsylvania.

CR: Oh, were you? I missed that one. I listen to that show all the time.

LK: Micheala Majoun plays us occasionally.

CR: Yes, she's the morning DJ.

LK: We don't get played because we don't fit in anywhere.

CR: Well, that was my question. Obviously, the lack of exposure stifles you from being more successful. Are you happy with this large cult following you have or do you really desire the mass success?

LK: Well, we don't change just to suit the way people think. So if that's the way it is, that's the way it is. You know, you're not going to change yourself. I don't think about it. Things like that would drive you crazy. We're happy with what we got. We get new people all the time. Is it different if you're liked by 20,000 people, 200,000 people or 2 million people? It's still a huge amount of people.

CR: How popular is Black 47 in Ireland?

LK: Not popular at all.

CR: No?

LK: No.

CR: Do they know you at all over there?

LK: Very little, because our records have pretty much been banned over there.

CR: Oh really? Why?

LK: Our records get released over there but the record companies never get behind them. We're too political.

CR: But you're pro Irish!

LK: Yeah, but not everyone in Ireland feels that way. They like the status quo. They don't like political music.

CR: Are songs like "Funky Ceili, Maria's Wedding" and "Bodhrans on the Brain" autobiograhical?

LK: Parts of them.

CR: Parts of them?

LK: Yeah, I'm not confessional. I take something that's happened and I embellish it.

CR: I think "Bodhrans" is hysterical.

LK: (Laughs)

CR: Actually, my favorite Black 47 song I've heard so far is "Touched By Fire." I really like that song. That one really got to me. That's why I e-mailed you and asked you about the Countess. I looked her up on the Web like you told me & there really was a lot out there about her

LK: There was a lot? She really was a remarkable woman.

CR: What kind of music do you listen to for personal enjoyment? It seems to me two obvious influences are reggae and Irish folk music.

LK: I listen to some reggae & I occasionnally listen to Irish instrumental music but, I listen to classical and jazz mostly. I listen to Miles Davis a lot and Chopin and Mozart.

CR: Do you like much rock and roll?

LK: No, not really. I've heard it all before. What's new about it?

CR: That's one of the reasons Black 47 is good. You're different.

LK: Yeah, I like the old rock and roll. I like rockabilly. I like Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. When it started. It's like we're on the 5th generation of it and there's nothing new that turns me on. Now if I hear something new I'd like it.

CR: Are you a Beatles fan?

LK: Yeah, who wouldn't be?

CR: Too many artists that are politically oriented tend to take themselves too seriously. Black 47 has a sense of humor to go along with its political fervor. Is this a conscious decision, or is this just how the songs come out?

LK: You know, we're an eclectic band. We have a huge sense of humor amongst ourselves. We take the music seriously but we don't take ourselves seriously. Who wants to come and see a show where you're being lectured to all the time. Even with the political songs. They're done from the character's point of view, with the character laying out what they are about but the character's not saying you've got to be like me. So even though one of my favorite bands is The Clash, you could never accuse The Clash of having a sense of humor, or of not being didactic and saying you should do something like that. To me, I come from a political background but I never try and make other people believe the way I do.

CR: Why is your new solo album entitled Kilroy Was Here?

LK: I'm from Wexford in the Republic of Ireland. Near my house in this old town was a galvanized doorway and it was daubed many years ago with Kilroy Was Here. When our car would return home at night we had to turn a corner and the lights would always illuminate the words. It stayed in my mind. I went back recently to see it but the doorway and door were all gone. I wanted to keep it close in my head -- thus the title. There's a mystery to the title also and a familiarity. I like to combine the two elements in my music.

CR: And my last question I had prepared is: Are any of the songs from Kilroy going to be adapted for stage performances with the band?

LK: You know, I don't know. We don't rehearse very much and it will take a bit of rehearsing. We're doing a new live album on St. Patrick's Day. We haven't rehearsed in two years. We have a rehearsal in two weeks, but we'll be doing... we're bringing back some old Black 47 songs. Maybe at some point. I'm going around, doing some live solo shows for Kilroy Was Here. I've got to write a whole new album of songs for Black 47. So at any rehearsal we'll be doing Black 47 songs. This is a side project. The boys would like to do one or two of them. If we do them they would turn out very different which would be great.

CR: I remember that Bruce Springsteen did an album called Nebraska which was just him and a guitar and he would take some of the songs from that album and play them on stage with The E Street Band.

LK: How did they sound?

CR: Very different. They fit right in with the band's stage repetoire.

CR: Well, that was everything I had. Thank you very much.

LK: Great. I hope you got a good interview.

The following day I sent an e-mail thanking Kirwan for the interview. He apologetically replied that if he did not seem forthcoming enough it was because he was having trouble with his voice and he was trying to save it for the concert. I never noticed.

The Rock & Roll Hall Of Shame

Here is a link for an article titled The Rock & Roll Hall Of Shame and a reprint of the same article I found on the Internet regarding Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and their continuing snub of some very famous and popular rock & rollers, most notably Chicago.

Copyright 2004 by Jamie Reno

As you've probably heard, the 2003 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees were announced recently. And, once again, there's a whole boatload of glaring omissions.

Among the non-invitees: Bob Seger, Yes, Linda Ronstadt, John Mellencamp, The Guess Who, Genesis, Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Three Dog Night, the Moody Blues, KISS, Alice Cooper, John Denver, Hall & Oates, Johnny Rivers, Neil Diamond, Gram Parsons, Charlie Daniels, the Hollies, the Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, Deep Purple, Steppenwolf and Chicago.

Of course, these are some of the most popular and enduring rock and pop artists of all time, yet they've not been named to the Hall, and many of them never will be. Why? Primarily because none of these artists is championed by Rolling Stone Magazine's Jann Wenner, the overlord of the dubious rock hall.

You think Pete Rose is being screwed by Major League Baseball? Well, I've got news for you: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is an even bigger joke.

According to RRHOF flaks, the Hall was established in 1983 to recognize the contributions of artists who've had a "significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetration of rock and roll." Five to seven performers are selected annually by an international voting body of so-called "rock experts." In other words, rock music critics, mostly, as well as some record execs and artists.

This month's coronation, which will he held March 10 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, and subsequently shown on the VH1 cable network in between a ton of commercials, honors AC/DC, the Police, the Righteous Brothers, and two critical faves, the Clash and Elvis Costello. While all are somewhat deserving honorees, most are totally predictable, especially the last two.

The Clash has been beloved by the rock-crit establishment since the band debuted in the late 1970s. Don't get me wrong. I liked the Clash, and I was saddened by the recent news that Joe Strummer had died. But they were and remain an eternally overrated band that offered mainstream-loathing writers a potent alternative recipe of anger, leftist politics and edgy art, along with that working class/punk aesthetic and touches of reggae and world music. They were more a movement than a band. But, yes, some of their songs were pretty cool.

Costello, too, was a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame shoe-in. A talented but pretentious and sometimes melodically challenged singer-songwriter, the "other" Elvis, who has that cerebral/nerd appeal, has always been more popular with the cultural elite than with regular music-listenin' folks. I'm not saying he hasn't produced some good music over the last 25 years, because he has. But David Lee Roth said it best when he remarked, "The reason most music critics love Elvis Costello and hate Van Halen is because most music critics look like Elvis Costello."

Wenner and his overly cerebral, misfit underlings, who, collectively, did not get laid in high school and as a result have a permanent chip on their shoulders, often pick the cool, artsy or angsty over the melodic or simply good. Harboring under the misconception that cynicism equals intelligence, they've routinely and stupidly dismissed great bands like Yes and Chicago since they were old enough to drop a needle onto a record and subsequently write a mean, clever phrase about what they were hearing. Most of them don't have the slightest clue what good music is.

To most rock critics, melody is secondary. Instead, they consistently discard simple joy and sentiment in music, and dismiss most anything mainstream unless the artists are non-white or dead, or the music is doused in something angry, oblique, obscure, political, esoteric, subversive or socially significant.

One of the few members of the rock-crit old guard that I?ve ever been able to stomach is Cameron Crowe. As good a music writer as any of the more severe, carping cynics of his ilk, Crowe, in his days at Rolling Stone, never forgot what it was like to be a fan. He never forgot the rush he felt the first time he heard a great record or saw a great concert. Refreshingly, he had a more pupulist sensibility as well as an apparent decency and lack of mean-spiritedness about him that made him so much more valuable as a critic, because, unlike so many who make their living criticizing others, Cameron was someone who simply wrote about what he loved. He was truly a voice for the music-listening public, not an elite.

Granted, he was a little smarter than the average rock fan, a little more insightful, and he was certainly better able to capture his buzz with eloquent words. But he was a fan, just the same. Cameron was a nerd, true, but he wasn?t a dark-hearted, venomous loser with a huge chip on his shoulder like so many of his rock-writing cousins. Cameron has, of course, gone on to greater fame as one of Hollywood?s most accomplished filmmakers, a guy who makes movies filled with heart, humor and passion, but I wish there were more people like him writing music and voting on who makes it into the RRHOF.

Controlled by Wenner and run by a small, caviling group of music writers and music biz veterans, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame committee simply has no set guidelines. The only real stated criteria are that the artist must have had some "influence" in rock and roll, and that the artist's first record must have been released 25 years ago. Otherwise, it's subjective – and wildly inconsistent.

If it's simply a music critics' award, then just vote in all your art bands, two-chord punkers and obscure pleasures whom the general public doesn't give a crap about and be done with it. But then they turn around and vote in such popular artists as the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, all of whom are totally deserving, of course, but none of whom has ever been a critics' champion.

Which is it, guys? I am so confused. Evidently, among the popular, mainstream bands, the only ones who make it are the ones that somehow manage to transcend their own image – like the Bee Gees, Zeppelin and the Eagles, who've all been shamefully slammed over the years by rock critics at Rolling Stone and elsewhere.

Let's look at some of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honorees of past years, shall we? And I don't mean disrespect to these fine artists, but we're talking a Hall of Fame here. Del Shannon, for instance. Excuse me? The guy had one hit, "Runaway." What about Paul Anka, who had a boatload of hits? Why isn't he considered?

Then there's Parliament/Funkadelic, another critical fave that hasn't sold many records. If you put in these guys, who were funk icons, to be sure, but who barely even qualify as rock artists, how can you ignore legendary funk/pop bands like Earth, Wind and Fire? When it comes to songwriting and overall contributions to popular music, EW&F's Maurice White runs rings around P-Funk's George Clinton.

Last year, the selections included Steely Dan and Aerosmith. Both great American bands, sure, but you could level the same charge against Aerosmith that critics have thrown at Chicago – that they've become a soulless power-ballad hit machine and lost their soul. As for Steely Dan, a fantastic studio phenomenon, no doubt, but I'm not sure they even fit into the rock and roll category anymore. Their early stuff, yes, but since "Pretzel Logic" this has largely been a jazz fusion band.

How about the Flamingos, Solomon Burke, Dusty Springfield and Richie Valens? While all are great artists in their own right, each is questionable as a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, especially Valens. With all due respect to Valens' family and to the many Valens fans out there, there has to be some level of quantity as well as quality for people who make it to this level. Could you imagine a baseball player making it to Cooperstown after playing one season in the Bigs?

The most glaring omission of all, however, is Chicago. Arguably the most popular and enduring American rock band of all time, Chicago, which is still selling records and selling out concerts worldwide, has been eligible for induction into this music hall of shame for nearly a decade. But it ain't gonna happen.

Chicago has been un unfair target of critics for years. Rolling Stone writers trash them every chance they get. But people who understand what good music is have been devoted to this band since the early records were played on progressive FM radio stations. Yes, Chicago was once considered musically subversive.

The first time I heard Chicago I was nine years old and living in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. My dad was a rock DJ at the time, I was a budding drummer, and he loved to bring home records from the radio station and play them for me. One night dad came home clutching this double album called "Chicago Transit Authority." I hadn't heard of it, and wasn't sure what to expect.

I figured it was another jazz record, which my dad tried to slip into my psyche from time to time while I wasn't paying attention. I thought it was probably something along the lines of Stan Kenton or Woody Herman. "No, this one's different," he promised. "It's the greatest thing I've ever heard."

Skeptically, I said OK, I'd give it a listen. It took just Side One – "Introduction," "Does Anybody Know What Time it Is" and "Beginnings" – to hook me for life. This album rocked. It had absolutely everything about music I love and still love. Power. Joy. Balls. Heart. Emotion. Intelligence. Fun. Beauty. And, most important, melody. Yes, the "M" word, a strange and foreign concept to many rock critics.

Even at age 9, I remember being blown away by the combination of strength and tenderness in the music. I was flabbergasted by the amazing guitar work of Terry Kath, who, it would later be revealed, was Jimi Hendrix's favorite guitar player. I was stunned by that phenomenal and now legendary horn sound. I loved the soulful vocals of Kath, the deep, almost big-band voice of Robert Lamm and the beautiful tenor singing of Peter Cetera. And those songs. Unbelievable changes and major 7 chords with grace and depth.

Chicago knocked me out. For my money, "CTA" remains the greatest rock/pop music debut of all time. It's an incredibly mature and melodic piece of work, from start to finish. I listen to it to this day more than any other record. Since that debut, I've happily followed the band along for the 36-year ride. So have millions of others.

Remarkably, the band has stayed together all these years and has never gone more than a year without touring or recording. Obviously, the group has gone through some changes over the years. Kath died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978, and Cetera left the band after the 1985 tour to pursue a solo career. But Lamm, my favorite member and the guy who wrote many of the band's early classics, is still there. So is that horn section – Lee Loughnane, trumpet, James Pankow, trombone, Walt Parazaider, saxophone.

On record, Chicago's hard-driving rhythm and blues and jazz rock of the early days has been replaced to a large degree by a more polished, commercial, middle-of-the-road sensibility. But longtime fans of the group know what this band is really all about. In concert, Chicago still knocks your socks off.

Sure, they play some of their 1980s and '90s adult contemporary Cetera-penned hits to appease the newer fans. And by the way, those are still good songs. But they also play their earlier classics: "Make Me Smile," "Free," "Feeling Stronger Every Day," "Call on Me," "Wake Up Sunshine," "Dialogue," "25 or 6 to 4" – to remind the older fans what this band is still made of.

Chicago is quite simply one of the greatest bands of the rock era, a band that has enjoyed worldwide sales of more than 120 million records and an astonishing 50 hits in the U.S. alone, including more Top Ten hits (20) than any other artist except the Beatles (34), and the Rolling Stones (24).

Yet the band, along with so many other great and deserving artists, are annually slighted by Wenner and his colleagues at the Rock & Roll Hall of Shame, er, Fame. What a bunch of terminal twits.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Jayhawks - Smile (2000)

This country-rock/roots rock band has changed its sound since Mark Olson left the band a few years ago. I know I am in the minority of Jayhawks fans when I say this change is for the better. The band sports a cleaner, more produced sound than their previous albums offered, and the new lead singer, Olson’s co-founder Gary Louris, has a more pleasing voice than his predecessor. The band now leans toward a slick British Invasion style sound, adding a few modern rock touches along the way. The rockers rock harder, the ballads are sweeter, and are reminiscent of the three-part harmonies used by the World’s foremost British Invasion band, The Beatles. Their old fans may consider this a more commercial venture, and that assertion is justified, but a more commercial sound wears well on this group. A few of the earlier influences remain but they take a back seat to Louris’s new sound. The highlight is “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” a song you will surely know if you are a faithful listener to college radio. Other standout tracks include “Somewhere In Ohio,” (In My) Wildest Dreams,” and the title track. This is easily the best album by a standout band.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Kim Richey - Glimmer (1999)

After 1997's terrific Bitter Sweet I extolled the virtues of Kim Richey's singing, songwritng and live performances. Richey's third album, Glimmer, is both a departure from her first two albums and a major disapointment. Her earlier work hinted she considered herself a member of the contemporary country sound. Instrumentally, her music featured clean sounding rock and roll arrangements and great musicianship that exhibited little of the country twang disliked by more urbane rock and pop music lovers. For those unfamiliar with Richey's music, her first two CDs remind one of a more conservative Mary Chapin Carpenter with a sweeter sound and less edgy lyrics.

What went wrong on this disc? Most of the rock and roll is gone. Only on "The Way It Never Was" and "Strength In You" does Richey approach the style and quality of her earlier work. Both would fit in nicely on either of her first two discs. Most of the rest is bogged down with synthesizers, strings, and glossy production. Despite the fact that all of her albums are thematically centered around songs about lost love, the earthier music of Bitter Sweet made Richey sound like she was down but not out and full of hope. Glimmer makes Richey sound like one of folk music's sensitive, self-pitying, depressed troubadours. Let's hope this change in direction is an aberration and not a step toward refashioning herself as a slick singer-songwriter.

Black 47 - Trouble In The Land (2000)

Black 47 (based in New York City and named after the blackest year of the Irish potato famine) began recording in 1992, but I never had the opportunity to hear them until 2000, and then only because I sampled this CD at a listening booth at a local record store. Have they ever been played on radio anywhere? Never to my knowledge, but after searching on the web I discovered they have quite a following, especially in their native New York.

Trouble In The Land may be the most original CD by anyone in many years. Black 47 combines the usual rock line-up of electric guitar, bass, and drums with saxophones, trombones, and a whole host of Irish folk instruments (including those great uilleann pipes). Singer Larry Kirwan surrounds himself with top-notch musicians who play their hearts out. You are never bored by the band's unique musicianship and arrangements, Kirwan's imaginative lyrics, and their love of what they do. They play a loud mix of reggae, Celtic folk music, & punk rock punctuated by Irish revolutionary politics. If you can visualize Bob Marley and the Wailers, The Chieftans, and The Clash all playing on stage together in the same band, you get the idea.

Since Kirwan is also a playwright, you should expect something different lyrically and that is exactly what you find. He composes lyrics that tell stories about the Irish political experience on "Touched By Fire," a song about the band's own stage performances on "Those Saints," and a song about the martyrdom of an Irish-American he obviously idolizes on "Bobby Kennedy." There is an anti-hate group message in the title track, and a story about a girl the narrator was attracted to while making Irish folk instruments in "Bodhrans on the Brain." There are references to James Joyce, Irish political leaders Bobby Sands and James Connolly, and John Lennon and the Beatles.

One can not totally describe the sound of Trouble In The Land or the personality of this band. You must listen to fully understand. Kirwan's left-wing view of everything should not offend those of a more conservative nature. He is not trying to be a revolutionary. All he wants is justice as he sees it.