Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Jackson Browne And David Lindley At The Philadelphia Folk Festival, Schwenksville, PA, August 19, 2006

A huge rock festival type crowd assembled to see Jackson Browne and David Lindley, his main sideman through most of the 70s, perform live at the famous Philadelphia Folk Festival on a hot summer Saturday afternoon. The two had just returned from a European tour and this was their only stop on the way home to California.

Browne and Lindley performed an all acoustic show. The star played his usual acoustic guitar and piano while Lindley, as always, played every string instrument he could get his hands on. He even used two different violins. If they were tired and suffering from jetlag it certainly didn't show in their playing or their enthusiasm.

The set list spanned Browne's entire career. Most of the first half of the show featured later material including "I'm Alive," "Too Many Angels," and "The Barricades of Heaven." He also played "The Crow and The Cradle" from the No Nukes album. Browne tried to present Lindley as an equal by performing two of Lindley's songs from his late band El Rayo-Ex, including "Mercury Blues." They also played what may be the only Browne-Lindley collaboration, "Call It A Loan," a forgotten song from Browne's 1980 album Hold Out. Depsite his best efforts, Browne knew he was the reason the crowd had assembled. That became obvious when "Take It Easy," "For Everyman," "Late For The Sky," "For A Dancer," "The Pretender," "Lives In The Balance" and an all acoustic version of "Running On Empty," thrilled the fans. Missing were some of my favorites: "Fountain Of Sorrow," "Before The Deluge," and "The Load Out/Stay."

The sound was impeccable. The blend of voices and instruments was never less than perfect. Browne and Lindley couldn't have played and sung better and the audience went away very happy.
The photo of David Lindley and Jackson Browne was taken by Deanna Cohen courtesy of Wallyingram.com and predates the folk festival.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Allison Moorer - Getting Somewhere (2006)

Allison Moorer's latest CD, Getting Somewhere, deserves any accolades it receives. Produced by her husband, Steve Earle, it is a pleasant sounding, upbeat rock record. The arrrangements are full of strong backbeats, some with grungy rock guitar and mostly performed in mid-tempo or faster arrangements that you can dance to. However when you dig deeper and listen to the dark lyrics you’ll find that Moorer confronts her frightening adolescence and childhood head on.

The ten brief songs waste no space as the whole disc is less than thirty-two minutes long.

The sound of the CD is contradictory to much of its subject matter. It is hard to discuss Moorer's career, as well as the career of her older sister, Shelby Lynne, without delving into their very dark childhood. The sisters' very abusive, alcoholic father killed their mother in a murder-suicide while the girls were watching. Both the songs "New Year's Day" and "How She Does It" are about how their mother and sisters coped with the depressing household they lived in daily with their father.

Not all of the lyrics are bleek. There are times Moorer celebrates life and the fact she has risen above her past. "If It's Just For Today" is a love song dedicated to her husband. On the surface "Where You Are" also appears to be a song about romantic love but when you read in the liner notes that it is dedicated to "Sissy," who is mentioned by that name in "New Year's Day," it becomes apparent that it is a love song to Lynne who raised Moorer after their parents died.

To some, the the contrasting moods of the music and the lyrics may seem incongrous. To me, it's a combination that makes Getting Somewhere a very good CD.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

WXPN's 885 Greatest Artists Of All Time

WXPN, 88.5 FM, public radio from the University of Pennsylvania, is asking listeners to vote for their ten favorite artists of all time. This is the third year in a row that WXPN has asked their listeners to participate in one of their fun polls. Two years ago we voted for our ten favorite all time songs for the 885 Greatest Songs Of All Time, and last year we voted for our ten favorite albums for the station's 885 Greatest Albums Of All Time, a radio event that was even more enjoyable. This year’s artist poll may not top last year’s three week countdown but I’m still looking forward to it.

Here is how the voting works. Your favorite artist receives ten points, number two gets nine points, and so on down the line. This year the station has expanded the voting by allowing fans to post an additional ten entries who will all receive one point. Vote by visiting the station's Official Website.

I’m sure many voters will decide how to best compile their lists using different criteria. I have set two guidelines for myself. Any artist who has no more than three studio albums to their name can not be ranked as among the greatest of all time because of their meager total output. For instance, as much as I love Los Lonely Boys only two studio CDs their body of work is not large enough to judge their total worth. How do we know if they will do anything significant beyond these two albums? The other rule I am using in compiling my list is that each artist must be able to place at least two of their albums on my personal, mythical, 100 Greatest Albums Of All Time list.

After the voting concludes I'll post the results and how my choices fared.

So with out further comment here are my annotated picks for my top 10, my listing of numbers 11-20 in alphabetical order, and a list of other artists who mean a lot to me, some who may have made my list on another day.

1. The Beatles – So much has been written about the former Fab Four that it would be redundant to add anything more here. To quote the All Music Guide, "a substandard Beatles record is better than almost any other group's best work." This band simply was the best!

2. The Beach Boys - As great as their early and mid-60s beach and car songs were most people have never even heard their best music. With only a couple of exceptions their albums, beginning with Pet Sounds in 1966 through Holland in 1973, are some of their very best.

3. Stevie Wonder - Wonder is one of the most eclectic, melodic, and innovative composers and musicians in pop music history. He deserves this ranking based on his 70s output alone even though his 60s "Little" Stevie Wonder period produced some fine pop hits and his 80s output, for which he was often criticized, is underrated. Whether he was playing jazz, funk, pop, or romantic love songs, few people, if any, can do as much as Wonder does and do it well. For the entire decade of the 70s the man had few peers.

4. Chicago - This vote is for their first eleven albums only. I never believed Chicago got their due when they were at their peak. Their decline may have started with VIII in 1975 but after Terry Kath died, and James William Guercio was dismissed as producer 3 years later, it all fell completely apart quickly. Listen to those early albums again. You will never convince me that Robert Lamm couldn’t write songs, or that Kath couldn’t play guitar, or that the horn section couldn’t be jazzmen when they tried. From 1975 and onward they consistently set their sites too low and they suffered for it. See the Album by Album Analysis of the Terry Kath Era.

5. Jackson Browne - The late rock critic Lillian Roxon once called Jackson Browne, "the sad sack of rock n' roll." It's a fitting description but he still managed to let some fun shine through his early music. He is a much better stage performer than his albums would lead one to believe. His concerts are what reeled me in.

6. Billy Joel - I never could figure out why the critics hated Joel. While some may have thought he was a lightweight his lyrics often contained insights I believe rock critics would love. Works such as "Summer Highland Falls," "Goodnight Saigon," "I've Loved These Days," and of course his signature song "Piano Man," all conjur up vivid images while listening to them. Hugely underrated!

7. Michelle Shocked - Shocked has said she considers herself an activist first and a musician second but she is much better at her second career. As with all of the artists on this list musical diversity is a hallmark of her catalogue. Beginning with her wonderful first offical album, Short Sharp Shocked eighteen years ago to the three CDs she issued together last year in a package called Threesome, most of Shocked's work has been superlative. Shocked is great in concert too.

8. Black 47 - Led by singer-songwriter and Irish immigrant Larry Kirwan Black 47 plays a loud mixture of reggae, Celtic folk music, and 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. To find out more of what this great band is all about see my interview with Larry Kirwan.

9. Blackthorn - Blackthorn is a hugely popular, Philadelphia based Celtic-rock band virtually unknown outside of the area but they deserve large scale national success. They have released five CDs. They are adept at covering classic Irish rock or writing and recording their own excellent songs. Larry Kirwan calls himself a fan and even wrote liner notes for one of their CDs. They are far more mainstream than Black 47.

10. Mark Knopfler - There are three Mark Knopflers: Dire Straits, the singer-songwriter, and the soundtrack composer. He excels at each. From the very beginning, with Dire Straits and "Sultans Of Swing," to his most recent album dueting with Emmylou Harris, Knopfler proves he can do anything he wants to musically. For pure guitar playing there is no one better.

Since each of these artists only get one vote a piece here are my second 10 listed in alphabetical order:

11. The Allman Brothers Band
12. Joan Baez
13. Nat King Cole
14. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (I wish I could have worked them into my Top 10)
15. The Eagles
16. Los Lobos
17. Poco
18. Elvis Presley
19. Bruce Springsteen
20. Steely Dan

Finally, deep apologies to all of you semi-finalists who were considered for my list.

Blood, Sweat & Tears
Dave Brubeck
The Byrds
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Del Amitri
John Eddie
Duke Ellington
Ella Fitzgerald
The Four Tops
Benny Goodman
Billie Holiday
The Hooters
Shelby Lynne
Sly and The Family Stone
The Mamas & The Papas
Glenn Miller
Peter, Paul & Mary
Kim Richey
The Saw Doctors
The Supremes
James Taylor
Lucinda Williams
World Party

Friday, August 04, 2006

Blackthorn - Push & Pull (2006)

Visitors to this website who are not from the Philadelphia area, nor part of the thriving East Coast Celtic music scene, have probably never heard of Blackthorn, a perennial concert favorite in the region for the last fifteen years. Blackthorn have developed a loyal following from Philadelphia and its suburbs all the way to the Jersey shore playing bars, folk festivals, and numerous small town, outdoor, summer music venues. While they have been recording since 1994, and released five CDs, I was only introduced to their music in 2002. Since then I’ve made a point of seeing them live every summer except for last year. Because I missed them last summer July 19th was the first time I’ve seen the band live since their lineup underwent a major change. Paul Moore, who was a member of the original quartet, was their primary lead singer and their most prolific and best songwriter, left the band at the end of 2004.

The vacancy left by Moore could have been a disaster of major consequence but all indications are the band has weathered the storm quite well. The biggest reason is bassist Mike Boyce, the younger brother of keyboard player and founding member, John Boyce. Mike Boyce joined the band about five years ago and he has assumed all of Moore’s duties full time. On the band’s new CD, Push & Pull, the younger brother sings lead on six of the ten tracks and has written or co-written eight of the songs.

On their first two CDs Blackthorn recorded only cover versions of well-known Irish rock and traditional music. Both It’s An Irish Thing (1994) and Here We Go Again (1996) were full of music by artists as diverse as The Saw Doctors and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. There is even a version of Paul McCartney’s "Give Ireland Back To the Irish" on the latter. When the time arrived to record their third CD, 1998’s The Other Side, Moore assumed most of the writing duties when none other than Black 47’s Larry Kirwan (who wrote the liner notes for the album) suggested that no band is truly respected until they record an album of original songs. This CD turned out to be their best. The disc is loaded with songs about the Irish and Irish-American experiences. Many are sad and serious while others, especially the jigs and reels, have the party attitude that helps the Irish keep their chins up. Ratty Shoes followed in 2001. It is also a worthy release, but not quite as rewarding as its predecessor even with the inclusion of the title track, their best song. By this time the band had become a sextet when Mike Boyce joined in time to help them make the album. He immediately asserted himself, and became a prominent member, then when Moore left he became the dominant member.

While I prefer Moore’s songwriting to Boyce’s, Michael is quite talented and his writing fits in well with the band’s overall goals and sound. In other words, they still sound exactly like Blackthorn. He is a better vocalist than Moore and his more dynamic personality is better suited to his roll as front man. Unfortunately, during their recent concert at Eagleville Park Amphitheater in Eagleville, PA, Blackthorn returned to their early years by including more cover versions in their set and eliminating almost everything Moore wrote for them. That is a shame because for me his songs were always a highlight. However Push & Pull is fulfilling enough that Blackthorn needs to play more of this release live than they did that evening in Eagleville.

One of Push & Pull’s highlights for me is "September Skies," the first song written and recorded by longtime lead guitarist Seamus Kelleher. It’s a really sad song about September 11, 2001. It is also Kelleher’s first lead vocal with the band. He struggles to stay in tune but he pulls the task off on sheer will and the song is so good his vocal deficiencies are secondary to the music. Mike Boyce’s "Sacred Ground," a history about Irish immigrant railroad workers, and the opening track "Reflections," written by the two brothers and original member John McGroary, are both standouts.

Visit Blackthorn’s website to find everything you need to know about the band and how you can purchase all of their CDs.