Thursday, June 28, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: Funky Kings - Funky Kings (1976)

This post is a rerun from 2008, before Forgotten Music Thursday began its monthly run, but we're posting it again because its a perfect fit for this feature. The article has been updated slightly.

The Funky Kings were a manufactured band, meaning the guys didn't get together themselves but at the behest of Clive Davis of Arista Records. The Kings were a short-lived sextet who recorded their one and only LP in 1976 for Arista. Davis was looking for another Eagles, the famous Southern California country rockers who were one of the most popular bands on the planet at the time. Unfortunately it wasn't to be. The Funky Kings recorded one self-titled album that failed to make the charts. When Arista passed on a second record, they disbanded. The record went out of print quickly and has never been released on CD.

Don't let their horrible moniker and even worse commercial success fool you. The Kings made a really fine album of mid-70s pop-rock and that is because, while they may not have succeeded as a unit, they were a band loaded with individual members who all went on to various degrees of musical success after the group was long forgotten.

The band had three very talented songwriters. The best known at the time was Jack Tempchin who earlier wrote hits for The Eagles. "Peaceful Easy Feeling," and "Already Gone" are among them. Tempchin also contributed to The Eagles comeback album of 2007, Long Road Out Of Eden. He also wrote the Funky King's best known song, the original version of "Slow Dancing" a tune that became one of Johnny Rivers last big hits. Another writer was Jules Shear who later went on to a highly respected solo career after fronting Jules & the Polar Bears. Finally, there was Richard Stekol who has penned hits for Iain Matthews, Kim Carnes, and others.

The Funky Kings were rounded out by some fine instrumentalists led by Greg Leisz, who to this day, is one of the most sought after and highly respected session men in the business. Those of you with a lot of country-rock, folk, and singer-songwriters in your CD collection should take a look at the liner notes included with your discs. I guarantee you will find Leisz listed somewhere, usually on steel guitar or dobro. He has played with Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, k. d. Lang, Wilco, Smashing Pumpkins, Beck, Brian Wilson, and a whole lot more.

Finally, there were bassist Bill Bodine and drummer Frank Cotinola. Both have remained active in the music business in various capacities and Bodine has his own company, Bill Bodine Music, that writes music for TV, films, commercials, and other recording artists.

The music on this record is typical of the period. To my ears the platter often sounds more like 70s soft-rockers such as Firefall than anything ever produced by The Eagles. This self-titled album is a pleasant experience but it does not deliver the knockout punch you may expect from a band that possessed so much individual talent. It's too bad they never got another chance.

Years later Tempchin told Stekol while discussing the Funky Kings that he saw a quote by Davis that said the band's lack of success was among his biggest regrets.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Pretenders - Learning To Crawl (1984)

While many prefer The Pretenders 1979 eponymous debut, in reality Chrissie Hynde's finest album arrived on the scene after two tragedies forced her to revamp her hard rocking British band's lineup. After the drug related deaths of both guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon only Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers remained from the band that recorded the group's first two critically acclaimed albums. Hynde replaced Honeyman-Scott with Robbie McIntosh and Farndon with Malcolm Foster. It would be this new group that recorded 1984's Learning To Crawl.

By this time Hynde was well aware she couldn't continue her rock n' roll lifestyle without taking a chance on ending up just like her two late bandmates and her new-found maturity was discussed in this LP's ten songs. Learning to Crawl opened with "Middle of the Road" where the singer admits she's "not the cat I used to be, I've got a kid, I'm thirty-three."

"Back on the Chain Gang" is a nice tribute to Farndon and Honeyman-Scott and it became one of the band's biggest hit singles. Its flipside is even better. "My City Was Gone," a song Rush Limbaugh tried to ruin by using it as bumper music on his daily show, is outstanding. It features great guitar work, a solid backbeat provided by the revamped rhythm section, and Hynde's very angry and expressive vocals on a song about the plight of run down, economically depressed, American, industrial towns. Both sides of the single featured Billy Bremner of Rockpile on guitar before McIntosh was recruited into the band.

The rockabilly influenced "Thumbelina" is a toe-tapping romp in which Hynde tells her young daughter that life may not always be easy but together they'll make it through this "great, big, scary world" and "2000 Miles" has become a Christmas standard. "Time the Avenger" and "Show Me" received deserved radio airplay and there is even an effective cover of the R & B ballad, "Thin Line between Love and Hate." Only "Watching the Clothes" is a bit silly. The song takes place in a laundromat but it again proves that Hynde is starting to realize that life for most people doesn't revolve around being a rock star and the often self-centered, instant gratification that goes along with it.

The Pretenders always sounded like they were the love child of The Rolling Stones and The Clash. Add to the mix Hynde's thoughtful and intelligent lyrics and what you get is one of the best releases of the early 80s. The combination makes it a nearly perfect record.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Chris Brubeck's Triple Play - Live At Arthur Zankel Music Center (2012)

It's hard to categorize Chris Brubeck's Triple Play. They're mostly billed as a jazz band but they play almost as much acoustic, delta blues as they do jazz. Their eclectic repertoire includes some very old jazz standards, a little Robert Johnson and Fats Waller, and a few originals. For the uninitiated, the trio is Peter "Madcat" Ruth on harmonica, jaw harp, guitar, ukulele, percussion, and vocals, Joel Brown on acoustic guitar and vocals, and leader Brubeck on bass, trombone, and vocals. Brown is the son of 85 year old clarinetist Frank Brown, and Brubeck is the son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck who, at the age of 90, can still play his butt off.

For years Chris Brubeck was a member of his Dad's group but eventually he started his own band. His resume also includes a concerto for trombone that he wrote for the London Symphony Orchestra and he has also played with Celtic music star Eileen Ivers.

There is a lot to like on Triple Play's new CD, Live At Arthur Zankel Music Center. This concert was recorded last June at Skidmore College's music hall as part of the 2011 Saratoga Artsfest where they were joined onstage by the elder Brown and Chris Brubeck's famous father.

Almost half of the twelve song set is acoustic blues featuring songs like "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and Robert Johnson's "Phonograph Blues." The latter allows Frank Brown to show off his prodigious clarinet skills. The session opens with the harmonica fueled "Rolling and Tumblin," an old chestnut covered endlessly by bluesmen all over the world. There's even some feisty humor on Chris Brubeck's "Mighty Mrs. Hippy" (love the word play). It's a new song about a hippy riverboat captain's adventures with the women he knows all along the waterway. Also fun is Ruth's "Win the Lotto," a tune about luck and hitting it big.

At about the show's midway point the group breaks into The Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" with its composer unexpectedly strolling out onto the stage in the middle of the tune to some very nice applause. Brubeck then sat down at his piano to jam with the band where he remained for the rest of the twelve song, seventy-seven minute set. Madcat's harmonica solo on "Take Five" brings a whole new dimension to the jazz classic that also features the master on piano. He stars again on Fats Waller's "Black and Blue" and on his Frédéric Chopin influenced "Dziekuje" he performed unaccompanied by the rest of the band. All five ended the evening with a ten minute version of another ancient jazz work, W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues."

If you like blues and the instrumental jazz of Dave Brubeck this disc should be very much to your liking. However, purists of either genre may find the music's split personality makes the band sound directionless.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The 2012 Appel Farm Arts and Music Festival, Saturday, June 2, 2012

Beginning in 1989, with the exception of one year, Appel Farm, a non-profit arts and music summer camp for children, located in the rural outpost of Elmer, NJ, has hosted a one day music festival whose lineup has always been loaded with adult alternative artists. Past headliners have included Jackson Browne, The Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Avett Brothers, Rufus Wainright, Fountains of Wayne, and Trombone Shorty. Other favorites who have played there over the last decade are Los Lonely Boys, Madeleine Peyroux, The Smithereens, Josh Ritter, and Roseanne Cash. This year's headlining act was the critically acclaimed jam band, The Tedeschi-Trucks Band.

The festival almost ended a few years ago due to financial concerns partially caused by several years of inclement weather but this year it came back with a vengeance as 2012's advance ticket sales outnumbered the total gate receipts for last year. Terrific weather and a stellar lineup helped Saturday become one of their better attended affairs.

The festival has two stages and both of them host music at the same time.  The day usually begins with many unknown, often local acts. Then the medium to heavy hitters step up to the plate. At the smaller Grove Stage Cheryl Wheeler and Rodney Crowell performed solo acoustic shows while at the larger Meadow Stage newcomers Jukebox the Ghost proved, despite their awful name, that they are a thoroughly entertaining pop-rock trio. They feature two lead vocalists playing electric guitar, piano, and drums but no bass player. The group often sounds like The Ben Folds Five (only better) while playing a set of short, power-pop tunes that hold your interest. Their songs are not deep but they're not trite either.

For us, the best performance of the whole day occurred at the Meadow Stage. Dawes, the young, Southern California rock band whose CD, Nothing is Wrong, was one of the outstanding releases of 2011 played an excellent, tight set.  After it was over, the MC, Michaela Majoun, the morning DJ from Phildelphia's WXPN, 88.5 FM, told the assembled multitude that lead singer Taylor Goldsmith is "the best lyricist currently working in rock." Fronting a quartet that is obviously influenced by Jackson Browne, Dawes played all of their best songs from their sophomore disc including "If I Needed Someone," "Fire Away," "Time Spent In Los Angeles," and "A Little Bit of Everything." The clarity of Goldsmith's lead vocals was superb. Never have I heard singing as vivid over top of electric instruments before and, because they are a band whose lyrics are very important, that is a good thing.

Next, The Carolina Chocolate Drops played at the Grove. They are a traditional folk band whose music is all fiddle and banjo based. The African-American quartet talk a lot between songs but it's not idle banter. Instead, they offer the audience a full education on American roots music as they play tunes ranging from Stephen Foster to Woody Guthrie, plus some originals. If you want to explore both the music and the culture of America's deep South The Drops are for you. They are led by a top notch lead singer, Rhiannon Giddens who never misses a note. I enjoyed them but a moderate amount of their gospel, bluegrass, and folk is enough. If you listen too long you'll need some rock n' roll to get your adrenalin flowing again.

Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi
Speaking of rock n' roll, the day-long event closed with The Tedeschi-Trucks Band who played a very disappointing two hour set. I'm sure the rock, blues, and R&B gods will all smite me for writing this but Derek Trucks is the most screeching slide guitarist I've ever had the displeasure of hearing. He will never be Duane Allman nor does he ever display any of the tasteful restraint of other famous slide players such as George Harrison or Bonnie Raitt. Frequently, the band's four man horn section was barely audible under the annoying onslaught of a muddy mix played at maximum volume.

Even worse, Susan Tedeschi's vocals have all the subtlety of a runaway 18-wheeler roaring downhill at full throttle and crashing into a freight train loaded with dynamite. She makes Janis Joplin sound like Norah Jones and her cover of Harry Nillson's "Everybody’s Talkin" was completely unrecognizable.