Friday, October 28, 2011

The Jayhawks Live At The Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA, October 22, 2011

As good as Gary Louris is The Jayhawks were never quite the same band without his partner and co-founder Mark Olson so it's good to see the latter back in the lineup after a long absence of more than a decade. The duo recently revived the highly regarded quintet who rocked out in front of a packed audience last Saturday night at the old Keswick Theater, a locally famous, art deco, former movie venue in the suburban Philadelphia village of Glenside.

The lineup for the evening consisted of the best supporting cast Louris and Olson ever assembled during the band's long history. In addition to Louris on electric guitar, harmonica, and lead vocals and Olson on acoustic and lead vocals the band included original members Marc Perlman on bass and long-time songwriting member Tim O'Reagan on drums. He and Karen Grotberg, their keyboard player during their glory years, also helped out with the singing.

The set started off a bit unpolished and the sound mix wasn't what it should have been, but it only took a couple of songs for the band to find their groove. Once they did the Minneapolis outfit offered the very appreciative crowd a whole night of duets with strong harmonies on almost every tune, something most rock bands either can't or won't do.

The Jayhawks are about the songs, not musical showmanship. Louris is a fine lead axeman but his solos were quite brief. He seldom improvised and he played it fairly close to the vest all evening, never straying too far from the original arrangements.

Louris and O'Reagan sang on a couple of the group's latter day songs with the drummer even taking lead on one. The two main frontmen did quite nicely on a cover of the moldie oldie "Love Hurts" but the rest of the evening appeared to focus on the group's just released, self-written CD, Mockingbird Time and their two critically acclaimed masterpieces, Hollywood Town Hall (1992) and Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995).

The set list included "Blue," "I'd Run Away," "Take Me With You (When You Go)" and much more. A big surprise was a fine rendition of "Miss Williams Guitar" a song about Olson's ex-wife, folkie Victoria Willliams. Missing were "Waiting for the Sun," "Bad Time," and "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me."

Neither Olson nor Louris spoke very often during the entire gig. They seldom announced the names of their songs and they never even introduced the band, two things they need to improve on.

Overall the veteran roots rockers gave us a concert worthy of their reputation and no one returned home disappointed.

The evening opened with a brief set by a former Grammy nominee, Tift Merritt, whose seemed to please only a few in the crowd because her songs all came from the same mid-tempo frame of reference. She needs more inspiration to hold your interest despite the fine pedal steel player who accompanied her.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Iron Butterfly - In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)

No doubt about it, "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida," the 1968 album and song by Iron Butterfly, is a relic from a different age. Every classic rock fan has an opinion about this 17:05 track that took up an entire side on the vinyl disc from which it came. It's a song that listeners either love or hate. There appears to be no middle ground. While it's really quite a simple composition based around a very famous riff it represents all of the excesses of the psychedelic era: extended guitar jams featuring both fuzz and wah-wah pedals, lots of electric organ, and long drum solos. The title is based on the phrase "In The Garden of Eden."

The San Diego quartet featured organist, singer, and songwriter Doug Ingle and seventeen year old electric guitarist, Erik Brann. The rhythm section of Lee Dorman on bass and Ron Bushy on drums rounded out the lineup.

The band wasn't a one hit wonder (their followup LP, Ball, also went into the top ten) but "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida" was so astonishingly successful compared to everything else the band released during its career that it is the only song anyone ever associates with them. The album sold four million copies and spent a year in the top ten.

Aside from the riff, the highlight is the drum solo located smack dab in the middle of the track. I'm not the only wannabee drummer who attempted to play along with Bushy on any table, countertop, or hard surface we could find. His simple, but fast paced playing on the floor tom-toms made his work as accessible as any drum solo ever put on tape.

At almost three minutes Bushy's famous pounding doesn't overstay its welcome. Dorman's heavy bass foundation supported the riff throughout the song while Brann showed some surprisingly accomplished fret work for a young man his age. Ingle's singing was nothing out of the ordinary even though the church organ sounds he produced coming out of the drum solo were quite a pleasing respite from the loud and heavy rock on the rest of the record.

Flipping the LP over revealed more pop-oriented songs than one would expect, especially after listening to the often overblown affair on the other side. These five tunes sound especially bland and dated today primarily due to Ingle's frequently annoying organ work that too often took the lead over Brann's guitar. Among the songs are "Termination," "Flowers and Beads," and "Are You Happy?"

Iron Butterfly had their fleeting, fifteen minutes of fame based on one truly spaced out, hippie anthem. Fond memories of my youth will make me love the song forever regardless of its quality.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Brief Tribute To The Clash

I never understood the punk culture any more than I do the current hip-hop scene but then I’ve never been the rebellious type. Both genres are filled with way too much venom and in the case of the punkers their rebelliousness often included large doses of self-loathing. Somehow, no matter how ticked off I am at something or someone, I've never had a desire to stick safety pins in my cheeks.

It was all too much for someone who grew up during the days of flower power, and peace, love, and understanding. Unlike many bands of the 1960s, Johnny Rotten and his ilk were truly rebels without a cause but, fortunately, there was one big exception: The Clash!

Why were The Clash different and far better than their so called peers? First, they weren't just shooting bullets indiscriminately at targets that included everyone but themselves. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Topper Headon, and Joe Simonin, never appeared to hate just for the sake of hating. They had a social conscience to go along with their anti-establishment persona.

Also, Strummer and Jones could write music. They possessed a flair for melody and song construction that others didn't have and they understood that a good tune often needed those deep hooks that get under your skin and won't let go. (Listen to "London Calling" and "Train In Vain" for examples). In addition, they weren’t afraid to turn the amps down below "10" when the mood called for it. That helped "Hitsville UK" become a perfect pop record that was hardly identifiable as a punk song. Even the stadium friendly "Should I Stay or Should I Go," and "Rock the Casbah" from the otherwise quite unfulfilling Combat Rock, are more pop than punk.

The English quartet's deep appreciation of ska and reggae often showed up in their work and they also held their rock 'n roll ancestors in high regard, a quality not commonly found among punk-rockers. The group's affection for Elvis Presley became apparent on their album cover art to 1979’s London Calling. They also released a remake of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law."

The Clash weren't just the best band of their genre. They were a legendary outfit that deserve the accolades they've been receiving for over thirty years.