Monday, September 2, 2019

Now Playing: Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell - Busy Being Free - BBC 1970

Flickering on the ‘rock room’s’ flat screen today is a wonderful and intimate performance by Joni Mitchell on the BBC in 1970 called Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell. It's slightly puzzling to say the least that this ‘holy grail’ recording has never seen an official release. Thankfully for Mitchell’s fans it has become 'available' online to stream and/or download for those into that sort of thing. In the ‘rock room’s” humble opinion this footage spotlights some of the most stunning and personal artistic musical expression in the pantheon of popular music.

Recorded on September 3, 1970 and later broadcast on October 9th this cozy performance in front of a respectful audience features many of Joni’s finest early works. Recorded in between Mitchell’s 1970 LP Ladies of the Canyon and 1971’s famed Blue, Mitchell is captured during her musical and artistic ascent. Mitchell plays seven tracks pulled from her first four recordings including a stunning rendition of “California” played on a zither from the yet to be released Blue. Here Joni is fresh faced, relaxed and in ravishing voice. The performance in total contrast to Joni’s appearance at the Isle of Wight festival the week prior. While Joni still played well, she was faced with issues from the colossal crowd, spaced our revolutionaries slithering around the stage, and a general disconnect from spectators much interested in their surroundings than Mitchell’s lacy and delicate musical brush strokes.

Mitchell’s televised set runs just over a half hour and is mesmerizing from the very first number. There were four additional songs Mitchell played that were not included in the show which I will note in the appropriate places during this review. In addition to the magical music Joni’s wonderfully organic and shy being and beauty permeates the screen. Every nuance and breath is counted, the silence as important and the melodies.

Beginning the In Concert film is Joni is on acoustic guitar, angelically stoic at a microphone stand. The opening song flowing from her is “Chelsea Morning”. The song predates Joni’s debut album and had already been recorded by Judy Collins and Fairport Convention, (then appeared on Joni’s 1969 Clouds) but here it is played by its composer, solo acoustic and as nature intended. Joni begins confidently, her voice a sunrise bird call, her verbal imagery as vibrant as her rich painted canvases. The strident strumming a slumbering feline stretching for the sunlighted windows of her Chelsea apartment. Joni finishes the song with an embarrassed giggle the result of appropriate applause.

Following “Chelsea Morning” but cut from the broadcast is the unreleased song, “Hunter (The Good Samaritan)” which was originally intended for Blue, but never made it onto an official release. A socially relevant song about a mysterious stranger never intended for public consumption.
Next comes another song cut unfortunately from broadcast (yet circulating) which Joni dedicates to any Scientologists in the crowd. “The Gallery” hails from Mitchell’s 1969 LP Clouds and expressed here in a riveting rendition. The song, which Mitchell also states is about a male artist who “connoisseur’s the ladies” is a noteworthy statement about a man who thinks he knows what the ladies like. Speculation is that the song is a reference to Joni’s relationship with Leonard Cohen.
Moving back into the official broadcast footage, Mitchell still on her acoustic guitar plays, “Cactus Tree” from her first album, 1968’s Song to a Seagull. The song’s narrator tells the tale of men and woman. Woman is courted in various ways and reciprocates in kind to those who want to share her presence, through her attempts and longing for being “free” conflict with the ideal of being wanted. The song’s abstract emotions are deeply more complex than my layman’s description, but its foundation has been explained.  Musically, Joni plays a gently prickling finger picked guitar line. The melody dynamically rocks between grounded and soaring, with Joni rising in glorious falsetto. The only descriptive fitting for this rendition is breathless.

An additional yet unreleased track is premiered next with “My Old Man” which would appear on the upcoming Blue LP. At this point in the proceedings Joni moves to piano. She introduces the song as still unfinished and needing a verse, but reveals that currently it is one of her favorite songs to sing. The subject of “My Old Man” is Joni’s current love interest Graham Nash who reciprocated compositionally at the time with his famous song, “Our House”. “My Old Man” shares that the love between Joni and Graham does not require proof or papers and exists just fine on its own accord. Mitchell plays a patient stained glass piano introduction and as she sings the introductory verse a shimmering smile settles across her lips. Stunning.

Before I can recover from this previous and amazing rendition Mitchell follows with “For Free”. The song sits on Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies from the Canyon and spotlights one of Joni’s most endearing melodies. David Crosby was obviously a fan as he covered the song on the 1973 Byrds reunion album. Lyrically the cut deals with Mitchell’s rise to fame and procures an alternative glimpse of how artists are viewed and valued while providing a view of Joni’s conflicted views on her ascending popularity. A highlight of the performance and a highlight of singer/songwriter music in general. Superlatives fail to conjure enough expression for this astronomical song and reading.

The next two songs played were not in the original broadcast. The first, “Woodstock” finds Joni still seated at the piano bench where she plays her version of the song made famous by 1970 cover versions from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and British band Matthew’s Southern Comfort. Joni introduces the song with the now famous tale of how she could not make the Woodstock festival which inspired her to compose the song in her hotel room. Mitchell’s performance here is beautifully conflicted, featuring a misty night time piano line and hopeful lyricism. Similarly to the rest of the show, Joni is sweet smiles and singing with eyes closed ecstasy and finishes the song with an angelic wordless recitation of the melody.
Joni then leaves the piano and moves to her dulcimer for early renditions of additional unreleased versions of songs from her upcoming Blue LP. Joni explains to the assembled crowd about her dulcimer referring to it as her “stretched our fiddle”. The first song is “California” which Joni explains was written while she was adventuring in various places around the world and feeling homesick. Joyous, buoyant and warm, Mitchell’s anticipation and relief for home pour from her syncopated and metered verses. Shimmering falsetto and delicate strums decorate her movements both on stage and in the fictional world of song.

“All I Want” follows on dulcimer and is also unfinished but is played here with a playful looseness that is missing from the studio version. Joni’s rhythmically scrubs the song’s contagious strumming pattern which she drapes over her longing vocal lines. In this early state we are offered an early sample of her clandestine songwriting process.

Returning to acoustic guitar Mitchell concludes the evening with two of her most critically acclaimed songs. Joni tells the crowd, “I’m really in the mood to sing, unfortunately my pipes are kind of going now”.  “I’d stay here for another hour”. Starting with “Big Yellow Taxi”, Joni breezes through the songs changes while flashing a resplendent smile. With nary a pause Mitchell then segues into “Both Sides Now”, composed by Joni, made famous by Judy Collins and then appearing on Joni’s 1970 LP Clouds.  Additionally, Mitchell also recorded the song with orchestration for her 2000 album Both Sides Now illustrating her affinity for the song. Her voice softy rocks between fragile vibrato and conversational while her strums keep time like a transparent metronome.

As the performance concludes Joni Mitchell Sings the Songs of Joni Mitchell flashes across the screen as the assembled studio crowd shares their enthusiasm and the broadcast fades to black.  In hindsight this thankfully immortalized concert is quite possibly the finest Joni Mitchell document from her early and prolific era. The show finds Mitchell’s work caught between dazzling green canyons and indigo blue while illustrating Mitchell’s songwriting and artistic intentions blossoming on both instrument and easel. This BBC performance introduces the listener to both Mitchell’s well known numbers and a few rarer cuts stuck between the pages. No matter the song performed; her beauty, honesty and immense artistic aesthetic is captured on celluloid for the duration of time.

Joni Mitchell BBC 1970

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Take One: Bob Dylan (and the Hawks) - 1965 Single - Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?

Released in the midst of arguably his most prolific era and recipient of the ‘thin wild mercury sound’, Bob Dylan’s 1965 single, “Can You Please Crawl Out You Window?” often slips into the recesses of Dylan’s compositional filing cabinet. Released on December 21, 1965 b/w “Highway 61”, the single featured not only another of  Dylan’s finger pointing lyrics but a deliciously funky instrumental backing by Toronto group “The Hawks” (later to be the Crackers, then The Band). Today in the ‘rock room’ I am listening to the original mono 7” single release which can also be found on the official 1985 Dylan box set Biograph.

Following 2015’s Cutting Edge box set additional versions of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” made their way into the canon. Early attempts that pre-date the Hawks come from July and feature both Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield are available as well as the complete Take 6 with the Hawks. Dylan's was not happy with the early takes thus resulting in the remake with the Hawks, minus Levon Helm and coming at the end of November.

Recorded on November 30, 1965 (though some Dylan scholars say October 5, prior to Helm's leaving the band) the single version features Dylan along with Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and drummer Bobby Gregg. There has been debate regarding whether Levon Helm is on the recording. In the 'rock room's humble opinion it is not Levon on the single. The song would be the first studio song officially cut with the “Hawks”. The high octane R and R street savy Hawks glide through Dylan’s period specific wordplay and rhythmic posturing with hard looks and tough rhythms.

While critics are quick to point out the “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is a lesser relative of other “put down” songs like “Positively Fourth Street” and “Like A Rolling Stone” there is no denying the confidence Dylan had in the track in addition to the vibrant instrumentation added by the fledgling “Hawks”. Though “Window” only reached number 58 on the charts, it still had an effect on music and musicians alike. Jimi Hendrix would perform his own version of the song in concert and on the BBC. He also admitted, according to Robbie Robertson that he loved the song’s central guitar lick and “copped” it for the Experience’s own version.

Lyrically the song is typical Dylan, insulting yet obtuse, just out of arms reach. The song could be about any number of Dylan fiends, associates or hangers on, but the ‘rock room’ agrees with the assumptions that the content could be about Edie Sedgwick. One gets the sense that the lyrics feature Dylan and/or the narrator inquiring with the female  to empower herself against any or a specific domineering male (Andy Warhol). Alternatively, it could refer to any female in Dylan’s orbit who Dylan has been subjected to the narrator's or specifically Dylan’s own wounded ways.

"While his genocide fools and his friends rearrange their religion of little tim women". Dylan is commenting on the dynamics of an abusive releationship, either one he is witness to, or one he has taken part in. Proof is found in an additional stanza: "He just needs you to talk or to hand him his chalk, or pick it up after he throws it". In a fashion that is purley Dylan, we cannot be ever be sure of the subject or their connection to the author as the narrative is witnessed (in this case) through glassy eyes and sliced up imagery.
The instrumentation of the song plays like one walking a set of uneven steps following an evening of libations. The rough hewn groove of the “Hawks” and the deadpan delivery of Dylan create a sideways world revealed only after escaping from the lyrical room developed. Dropping the needle on the vinyl, the song begins with the golden ringing of a cymbal bell and Hudson’s blue streak Lowrey organ. Prior to the entrance of Dylan’s stony vocals a brief musical crevasse reveals Robertson’s strained and veiny guitar break leading into verse one. Gregg allows for musical coloring inside the lines with a rich 4/4 cowbell clank the plays through the song's duration.

It is here that the Dylan and the Hawks’ aesthetic reveals itself in all its quicksilver glory. Manuel’s piano rock and rolls out the chord changes while Dylan’s rhythm work is kinetic scribbling underneath Richard’s thumping left hand. The double barrel piano and keyboard attack swirl through the crooked window frame ajar. Gregg and Danko keeps the slanted verses delicately balanced with a honky-tonk groove allowing Dylan the freedom to undulate. Danko is especially active with ascending fretwork under each verse.

The Hawks hard driving R and B lays a sturdy foundation to which Dylan’s imagery morphs around.  Robbie Robertson strangles stringy notes from his Telecaster at each break between the verses. His playing lending a sonically stamped postmark to Dylan’s snide remarks. A major highlight being that Dylan's vocals are absolutely soaked in attitude. While the chords may be cut from the same cloth as "Rolling Stone", the dramatic approach by the Hawk's remodels Dylan's previous attempts.

The famous oft-told story regarding the cut is when contemporary folk friend Phil Ochs was traveling in New York City with Dylan and composer David Blue when Dylan inquired about Ochs opinion of the song. Ochs prophetically replied, "It's ok, but it will never be a hit". Dylan in reply exploded on Ochs, telling him to "Get Out" while marking him with, "You're not a folksinger, You're a journalist!". It could take an entire volume to trace the dynamics of Dylan's tempestuous relationship with the folk movement, but in this case Dylan's high sensitivity to his art was teetered on a razor's edge.

Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" was only a glimpse of the healthy vein of 'thin wild mercury music' to be mined by Dylan and his backing group from Canada. While the song exhausted what Dylan had found to be successful in 1965, it also allowed for Dylan and his group to explore their new relationship and its intricacies. This period of kinetic creation, high drama, black and white paper battlefields, and amphetamines and pearls is the stuff of rock legend. What cannot be mythologized is the music, and the deep creativity experienced and expressed by Dylan and his musical cohorts.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Take One: Love – 1966 Single “7 and 7 Is” - I’m A Day And I Go’

Playing today in the ‘rock room’ is a revolutionary, ‘proto-psychedelic’, ‘A’ side single from the summer of 1966. Recorded by the highly influential but not always mainstream Los Angeles group “Love”, the track, “7 By & Is” b/w “No. Fourteen” was cut over two days in June 1966 before charting in the Top 50 Billboard the following month. Later covered by a number of different band’s including but not limited to The Ramones, Alice Cooper, and Rush, the song is a punky garage stomp that differentiated “Love” from the typical groups of the time.  

Arthur Lee’s phantasmagoric songwriting in addition to being an African American man fronting a mixed race group elevated “Love” to a musical place that gave them attitude, made them a bit scary and injected them an influence over a number of acts of the time including, the Stones, and the Doors. Ironically enough, the single “7 and 7 Is” was produced by Jac Holtzman and engineered by Bruce Botnick both well known for their future success with “The Doors”.
In addition to being released as a single, ‘7 by 7 Is’ was also featured as an album track on “Love’s” 1966 LP Da Capo. The song spotlights the lyricism of Arthur Lee’s young angst and topically references a love interest that also shared Lee’s birthday of March 7th hence the numeric reference in the title. The lyrics perform as a youth getting a better grip on his world while tinted through mind altering substances. If the voltaic track is not ‘rock and roll’ enough Lee’s shout of, “Oop-ip-ip oop-ip-ip yeah” at the end of each verse gives rock listeners  cry of“Womp bomp a loo bomp” just a taste of a hallucinogenic.

The song is grated from the speakers, an exposed skinned knee from falling on a hot gravel road. The drums a constant trill underneath a scrubbed electric rhythm punctuated by quivering lead guitar strums. Ken Forssi’s bass lends less of a bottom end and more off a guttural honk that contributes a lead aesthetic to the churning kinetic swell. The drums on the track are played by "Snoopy" Pfisterer according to the text “Forever Changes”. Rumor has it that he had a difficult time playing the marching band triplets on the track (30 takes) and Arthur Lee gave him one more shot before he told the drummer to find a new gig. The drums on the single are the result of Lee’s warning.

Lee’s vocals ooze attitude and the lyrics are slightly bedazzled with a psychedelic sugar. Typical to Lee’s style his lyrics range from pastoral and happily high to being delicately balanced on a razors edge of psychosis and psychedelia. His strength was not only unique melody, but instrumentation that ran the gamut of mystical flutes, squawking horns and crystalline guitars.
In the sung verses Lee’s lyrics are chanted matter of fact, made more urgent with substantial cymbal splashes. Following the 2nd verse there is no “lead” break, just a high speed chase through the wordless instrumentation where the undulating guitar track rises and falls. A heavily chorused count down prefaces what becomes a well-timed ‘rave up’ rising in helium fashion until detonating into a film soundtrack explosion. (In concert this would be recreated by kicking a reverb unit) As the detonation dissipates a delicate set of bluesy changes soaked in vibrato fade into the run out groove.
While Lee states that he is, “Trapped inside a night” the metaphorical explosion releases the anxious groove allowing the day to come to light. The ‘rock room’ feels this musical exorsist represented in the shaky departure played out in the fade.

For a 2:15 single by a non-mainstream act in the mid-1960’s, “7 and 7 Is” can be counted on as one of the formative tracks prefacing the upcoming “garage”, “psych” and home grown series of rock and roll bands to flower on the 1960’s. The track had been referred to as the first “punk” song by critics, but the ‘rock room’ asserts that this is too simple a label. The song’s naturally occurring attitude and instrumentation is a result of Arthur Lee’s coming of age through his music. Like anything forward thinking in the world of art, people will adhere a name to it in order to understand it. In the case of “7 By 7 Is”, it’s refusal to be classified is what makes it so influential and unique.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Raconteurs -'Doing It His Own Way' - Help Us Stranger LP

Creating and disseminating music is a joyful thing. Be it for the creators of said music, or for the aural recipient of the tunes. Obviously in these modern times music has become a commodity; a corporate effort made up of hundreds of composers, producers, fluffers, mixers and lyricists. Hopefully the effort of the collaborative amalgamated hierarchy can create a superstar out of their combined efforts. If they are luck the money will soon follow.

What has become rare in this conflicted musical atmosphere is a small group of talented hard working musicians who ‘do it themselves’. A tribe of fiends who’s unique abilities and differing outlooks that when working toward a common musical goal birth an organic stew of musical alchemy. Enter the Raconteurs and their new album Help Us Stranger.  

After an unintentional 10 year hiatus, the muse finally called on the band’s respective members and brought them together for another attempt at an unadulterated and musical rock and roll release, the first since 2008’s Consolers of the Lonely. Both of the principal song smiths, Jack White and Brendan Benson have described the journey to the records fruition as taking ‘baby steps’. Both the internal chemistry of the band and lack of pressure to deliver anything but to themselves initiated the record’s homegrown aesthetic. Additionally it doesn’t hurt that musical mogul Jack White owns the label, studios and pressing plants involved!
What makes Help Us Stranger not only unique but extraordinary is the spotlighted abilities of each of its members. This is not a Jack White vanity project nor has it ever been. Each piece of the group is as vital as the other. Featuring what Jack White refers to as the best rhythm section in rock and he is correct in that statement,, drummer Patrick Keeler and bassist Jack Lawrence, (of the Greenhornes) the group has the ability to serve the songs in whatever way they require. Regardless if the song is a gritty sandpaper groove like “Don’t Bother Me”, or a triplet filled ‘rave up’ like “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” the band is balanced on the knife edge and on consistently point. The group reminds the ‘rock room’ of a favorite family relative, the black sheep, always dependable, and the person who sticks to their values, which in this case are musical. This family member is honest, talented and most importantly cares about history, their craft and their personal as well as collaborative ideals.

Each individual cut of the Help Us Stranger LP features a sticky piece of ‘ear candy’ for the listener to suck on. Whether it’s the psychedelic haze of the middle eight drizzled over the first single “Sunday Driver”, the spacious and cinematic production of ‘Now That Your Gone’, or the plump and blunt syncopation of “What’s Yours Is Mine”. There is no mysterious veil to be lifted on this album which is probably why some reviewer’s (Pitchfork, I See You) seem to need a gimmick or some sort of hand holding to understand the record’s unpretentious charm. This claim is supported by the album track “Someday’s (I Don’t Feel l Like Trying”), a titanic number in the ‘rock room’s’ humble opinion and an weighty example of the unadorned and forthright expression of the LP’s collected songs. Special note to the thick footed guitar orchestrations which raise the chorus to goose bump levels.

From the LP’s triumphant opening cut, “Bored and Razed” which was almost left off the recording until drummer Patrick Keeler nudged the song’s composers to get some lyrics going, to the closing meditation of “Thoughts and Prayers” the record states, “This is us, take it or leave it”.  Regarding the aforementioned opening track, Keeler’s decision to push for the song illustrates the true collaborations that took place in the studio to make the record what it is. All four members produced the recording, Keeler did the LP art and as previously stated White’s Third Man Records is where the recordings can call home. A true labor of love that states the truth of the saying, ‘the sum is greater than the individual parts”.
Jack White’s guitar work on the record, when unburdened by being the front man is some of his finest playing to date. He unlocks the emotional content of each song with deft choices regarding tone, empty space and internal energy. His touch in the song “Only Child’” dons sonic masks between the verses. His breaks concentrated, each note as important and vital as the next. White’s trademark guitar fingerprint can be found on the glass of aforementioned songs like “Sunday Driver”, and the feverish Detroit punk flashback “Live A Lie”.

The album screams by like a rock and roll locomotive, flashes of melody both familiar and not, influences play hide and seek from the darkened corners of Delta jukes and from the floral Mod clubs of Swinging London in the 1960’s. Brendan Benson’s soaring yet deceptively simple songwriting is the clandestine monarch of the group and album. Jack White’ s internal bruised and blue riff creator when collaborated with Benson’s melodic excursions result in straight rock no chaser, and beautifully crystallized ballads that swing from the dramatic to the mysterious. The diversity of the record hearkens back to the days when a complete musical offering must be digested and ruminated upon, as opposed to blasted out as a digital ‘focus track’ and then buried beneath the waves of the next ‘big one’ to follow. There is not one cut on the album which clues the listener in to what may happen next. Each song a world onto itself yet slotted perfectly into the context of the whole. Each track has unique features as well as sparkling elements within said features. Light and shade, acoustic and electric, punk and pastoral, resplendent and bluesy. 

A welcome surprise nestled in the nooks of the grooves is the Raconteurs deep attentiveness to the vocals. Benson and White’s vocal blend has always been a blood relative match; and with Jack Lawrence now taking on a more substantial role in the vocals, tasteful three part harmonies abound. Spotlighting this epiphany is Side one’s closing number ‘Shine a Light’, the song White singles out as the one that floated to the top and screamed out, ‘I am a Raconteurs song’, to which Benson agreed. A song that again (I sense a theme here) takes beautifully disparate parts and blends them on a composers pallet before divulging the most beautiful of songs.

If there is any criticism of this collection is that it ends too quickly. This in part to the tightly wound explosives contained within. The album asks you to listen and then flip while putting down whatever electronic device you have in your hand as the music is just too important to miss. What the Raconteurs care about is artistic expression, storytelling and incendiary rock and roll. If you like magic tricks, slide of hand or music to ‘hear’ this record is not for you. On the other hand if you dig, melody, dynamic rock and roll instrumentation and a record that grabs you by the shirt and says, “Listen”, Help Us Stranger is the clarion call for you.

Help Us Stranger

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Take One: Peter Tosh -'Coming In Hot' 1981-Musical Shot

Spinning today in the ‘reggae room’ are sweet smoky riddims of Peter Tosh’s 1981 classic cut, ‘Coming In Hot’. The song is the lead off track from Tosh’s excellent full length 1981 LP Wanted Dread and Alive, Tosh’s 5th solo record. The song was also released as a single in conjunction with the LP b/w ‘Reggae Mylitis’. Typically for many of Tosh’s songs, it did not make a huge dent in the popular charts but quickly became one of his on stage favorites as well as one of his career defining cuts. A track that deftly blends all of the ‘Mystic Man’s musical and composing abilities.

The magic contained within Peter Tosh was his innate ability to combine stunning and unique melody with often serious content and direct messages. This keen ability often kept Tosh out of the mainstream as much of his lyrical directive was hard to accept for your everyday normal music listener. His expression of love for Rastafarianism, Emperor Haile Selassie (Jah), herb and his Jamaican brethren didn’t always connect with an often closed minded public.  But for his followers and serious reggae fans though; Tosh’s storytelling and unabashed calling out of oppressors, downpressors and shady governments was to be honored. This endeared him to the forgotten and the poor of his own country of Jamaica as he spoke directly to them and without pretense.

In the case of ‘Coming in Hot’, Tosh cross pollinates an addictive musical theme with a double entendre lyric about his personal attitudes toward himself and his relationship with the muse of music. His deftly uses the metaphor of a gun to match with his musical inspiration as each description of the weapon’s makeup builds to Tosh ‘pul(ing) the trigger’. Weapons, both symbolically and in reality unfortunately hold a visible spot in Jamaica’s turbulent history. ‘Coming in Hot/Firing Some Shot/Coming in Hot/It’s A Musical Shot’, sings the opening stanza which sets the stage for Tosh to explore the narrative on top of the heavy one drop.
‘Comin in Hot’ begins with Sly Dunbar’s crisp kick drum initiating a syncopated opening punctuated by starter gun snare cracks. A brief pause and the song begins in earnest with the aforementioned chorus lines and a gnarly roots groove. Robbie Shakespeare’s bass is substantial and reverberates as a big oar navigating the songs choppy riddim. It sounds like Dunbar wants to play a straight rock beat but the groove is shifty and is dotted by rich wafts of percussion. Dunbar’s double bass responds in kind, pumping dark red blood into the song’s flesh.

Following the introductory chorus, the verses waft in like a long draw on a smoky spliff. Dunbar plays it thick and straight while Tosh’s mesmerizing sermon explains matter a factly what this musical heat wave effect has on his inspiration and his physicality. Subtle interjections of dancehall keyboards and sweet  well timed backing vocals by ‘The Tamlin’s are the noticeable craft work, but as previously stated, Sly and Robbie are the heavies blowing on the coals. Tosh's dark rich baritone exudes cool while lending the song a believable edge.

Following a steamy beach walk around the verses and chorus comes a mid-song key change. The moment is just long enough to twist your ear before quickly returning to the song proper. While just a fleeting musical moment, the change is the kind that the ‘rock room’ lives for and is sure to give you  an ‘irie’ feeling. The closing verses float back in on Tosh's rhythmic phrasing, before allowing the song to fade out into the run out grooves.

The ‘rock room’ is quite stumped for why this track did not make a bigger dent, but then again I understand that Tosh’s commerciality in no way reflects his amazing abilities. On his own island I am sure it blasted from the smoky doorways of Jamaica clubs additionally having a special place for music lovers on the island. Tosh was a prophet and music was his medium. Like all prophets, the message disseminated is not always what one wants to hear, or alternatively the message is too painful because of its truth. ‘Coming In Hot’ was Tosh’s statement of confidence, power and inspiration in himself and an amazing track with no finger pointing involved. Tosh is playing the true ‘Rastaman’ who’s purpose is to illicit ‘positive vibrations’.

‘Coming in Hot’s’ sustainable makeup and longevity is proven as over 35 years later Tosh’s grandson Dre Tosh re cut ‘Coming In Hot’ as a tribute to his grandfather, his country and to Rastafarianism in 2017. While listening to this updated version I am again reminded of the quiet power and majesty of Peter Tosh’s catalog and its enduring message. Whenever you hear reggae music and feel it’s one drop caress, and enjoy it’s happy vibes, remember like everything there is a Ying and a Yang to be considered. In the case of Peter Tosh the balance is ‘positivity’ as well as a fight for, ‘equal rights and justice’.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Put The Boot In: Yusuf / Cat Stevens - Boston 2014 - Remember the Days of the Old Schoolyard

Spinning in the ‘rock room’ today is a unidentified set of files captured during Yusuf Islam’s 2014 return to touring. Taped from the audience and supplemented with You Tube footage I am enjoying one of Yusuf’s East coast dates from the tour. I was lucky enough to attend the Boston show and can know reflect back on one of the finest performances I have had the pleasure of attending.

A frigid and blustery Boston night was braved by a sold out crowd, many who had waited 38 years for Cat Stevens’ (now known as Yusuf) return to the performing stage. In support of his 2014 studio LP Tell Em I’mGone, Yusuf is currently playing a limited number of engagements across the US. His second appearance of six dates in the states took place in Boston on Dec. 7, exceeding any and all expectations for the talented and sometimes controversial artist.

The intimate and ornate Wang Theatre was the setting for a two-set, 105 minute performance composed of Steven’s most beloved classics as well as samples of Yusuf’s contemporary dusty desert blues compositions. The tour moniker, Peace Train…Late Again was reflected in the stage set, which was constructed of a broken down train station that changed mood and vibe based on the song performed.

The concert illustrated the elder Yusuf as an artist willing to reveal and explore all aspects of the Cat Stevens catalog that made him famous, in addition to the expanding song list of current Yusuf compositions. The first hour-long set of the concert settled into mellow dual acoustic guitar groove opening with ‘The Wind’, the same number that opened Cat Steven’s last US tour in 1976. Similarly to 1976, long time Yusuf friend and musical colleague Alun Davies was included on acoustic guitar. In addition to Davies, Yusuf was joined by keyboardist Pete Adams, bassist Stefan Fuhr, Drummer Kwame Yeboah and additional guitarists Matt Sweeney who sat in on tracks from the new LP and Eric Appopoulay.

The first half of the concert drifted between familiarity and discovery with Cat Stevens classic tracks and deep cuts intermingled with Yusuf’s poignant new material. Regardless of the composition, the songs and stories are all developed from the same earth spring of inspiration, the musical and spiritual journey of Cat Stevens. Yusuf reclaimed his early hit ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’ for his own in a sing along performance featured early in the show. Highlights of the opening set included a rousing reading of Catch Bull at Four’s ‘Sitting’ that rivaled the original reading, a rare and floral ‘All Kinds of Roses’ off of 2009’s Roadsinger and an always relevant reading of ‘Where Do the Children Play’ that received rapturous applause and soulful accompaniment from the crowd.

Yusuf’s voice was a perfectly preserved specimen for the duration of the evening. It’s strength somewhat diminished by time, but its resonance and emotion deepening with every performance. A deft pairing of the old and the new displaying this current vocal approach found Cat Stevens first single ‘I Love My Dog’ given a jazzy reading before followed with 2014’s ‘Cat and the Dog Trap’, in my opinion the most beautiful song both lyrically and instrumentally on the new LP.
The opening set then closed with a collaborative ‘If You Want To Sing Out’ from the 1971 Harold and Maude soundtrack that left the crowd smiling and highly anticipating the second set.
The second set began shaded and the train station turned twilight and dim. The Peace Train was drawing near, the band was armed with electric instruments and break into a funky and strident cover of ‘Big Boss Man’ that enunciated the tastefulness and collaborative interest displayed by Yusuf’s touring band.

Yusuf then introduced ‘Eddie Vedder’s favorite song’ before playing an intimate and definitive version of ‘Trouble” off of 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon, an inspired choice. ‘Oh Very Young’ followed and received a standing ovation after a flawless rendition illustrating Yusuf’s acceptance of his Cat Stevens legacy as well as the joy it brings him by playing the music. The set now revealed the big songs, the songs that cemented Yusuf’s career then and now. ‘Moonshadow’ was played by the full band in a triumphant arrangement, Wild World, ‘Father and Son’ and the long-awaited ‘Peace Train’ were played with infectious joy and virtuosity. Intermingled with these well-known and sought after classics were the impressive tracks off of the new LP including a soaring reading of Edgar Winter’s ‘Dying to Live’ and the gritty ‘Editing Floor Blues’.

The second half of the performance gave everyone exactly what they had come to see, whether a child of the 60’s, an aging hippy, or a recent passenger on the ‘Peace Train’, there was a song or a message for everyone. Each of the Cat Stevens songs performed felt fresh, their arrangements rediscovered, their melodic nuances fully explored. A celebratory reunion of an artist with his long-lost musical children was taking place on the performing stage.

The hardcore Cat fans were sated throughout the set, first when Yusuf amazingly quoted multiple movements from the 1973 opus ‘The Foreigner Suite’ and then again with the encore choice of ‘Sad Lisa’ which brought the house down in its unique spot as a closing encore number. The set first concluded with the aforementioned Cat Stevens signature readings of ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Father and Son’, songs that defined an era as well as inspiring the beliefs and relationships that developed during the two songs popularity.

Then for the encore Yusuf and band returned with a welcome appearance of ‘Miles from Nowhere’ which made for a Tea for the Tillerman double encore when followed by the spooky beautiful piano based ‘Sad Lisa’. Again, Yusuf sang with precision and grace, offering a broad smile after a slight vocal hiccup during ‘Miles from Nowhere’. The small miscue illustrated a fantastic moment, revealing Yusuf’s new musical joy, and his sincere appreciation for his fans and followers who had waited so long to see him again or for the first time.