Talk From The Rock Room: January 2015

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Put the Boot In: Led Zeppelin -'Mortals Never Know' Fort Worth, Texas May 22, 1977 - Texas Hurricane

Jamming in the ‘rock room’ today is a recently (2014) circulating soundboard recording hailing from Led Zeppelin’s 1977 US tour and featuring the ‘tight but loose’ attitude that the tour is famous for. The soundboard is a thick sonic slab of prime Zeppelin, slightly flat, but well balanced and conveying an enjoyable clarity. While perhaps not as consistent as previous tours, the 1977 road trip finds the band toying with the set list, while playing the recent songs from Presence with fire and attitude. The featured recording comes from May 22, 1977 Fort Worth, Texas titled, Texas Hurricane.

Robert Plant’s voice is in decent shape and as Zep fans know his vocal screeches and reaches throughout a tour often left his vocal chords battered and bruised. Here the soundboard recording allows a glimpse into Plant’s vocal control and finds him in solid form. John Paul Jones is especially audible and having a particularly fine evening playing multiple instruments. His Alembic bass guitar is elastic thunder, aggressive,  driving and a pleasure to focus in on. Bonham acts as the steel metronome and per usual leads the band; his drums are well mixed and up front. Page is also having an alchemical evening, sometimes conveying insanity through his mad soling that threatens to leave the earthly realms at any moment.

The concert begins with ‘The Song Remains the Same’ the usual opener for the tour. While not quite the kinetic level of the famed version from June 21, 1977 this is a substantial rendition lead by John Paul Jones. Without missing a beat the band leaks into a sludgy version of ‘The Rover/Sick Again’. Plant gets it going with mountain top vocals, pushing right to the very precipice of his range. Page greases the wheels for the evening with streamlined and chorused soling. The mix of the recording has settled in and Plant now acknowledges the crowd with a ‘Good Evening Fort Worth’. A humorous exchange occurs when Plant apologizes for a delay and states that there were ‘a few clouds in the sky between here and New Orleans’.

The band plays a standard for the tour reading of ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ that features a well blown Plant harp solo before the first heavy highlight of the show occurs.  Plant tells the crowd to ‘Dig It’ before a false start derails their first attempt at ‘In My Time of Dying’. Plant makes another comment about ‘clouds on the stage’ before beginning anew. The second attempt springs from the grave with demented metallic slide guitar from Page on point vocals from Plant. This reading is a top version from the tour and a cohesive performance from the group in spite of Page losing himself toward the conclusion of the song. The ending even features a quote of ‘You Shook Me’ for good measure, a nod to the bluesy attitude of the set.

The highlights continue with an all time and version of ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ introduced by Plant as, ‘another blues based, put together by ourselves’.  'Since I’ve Been Loving You’ creeps like low lying smoke in a atmospheric version that features dripping keyboards by JPJ and aggressive clean soling by Page who conjures relentless dynamic twists on the blues theme. His first solo glows with stinging heated embers before submerging itself and cooling in dark pools of reflection. One of the finest live versions available in the rock rooms humble opinion and worth seeking out.

The centerpiece of the concert now follows in perfect time as the band is peaking and locked in tight. ‘No Quarter’ extends past twenty minutes navigating shadowy and jagged terrain, spotlighting the ample piano abilities of John Paul Jones and allowing for the band to improvise their journey. Following the introduction, Plant doesn’t even sing the verse before Page’s sonic ‘dogs of doom’ break down an ancient door revealing the mid song wilderness path. Jones performs a solo recital of haunted hanging piano melodies before he is joined by Bonham and a ragged and a enthusiastic rock and roll jam develops. This sturdy jam appears, but only momentarily before crashing back into JPJ’s moody soling. This excursion coalesces into the usual (awesome) ‘No Quarter’ jam, which materializes and finds Page burrowing below the earth, his soloing revealing magical strata to which Bonham lends a thunderous funkiness to each discovery.

Page now crouches low circumnavigating the netherworld revealed by his sonic searching. Bonham lights a fuse initiating numerous and small detonations. Page communicates through an unknown dictation; a small woodland creature answers his call and then disappears into an overlapping field of precariously stacked boulders. The jam explodes into a climax, leaving smoky remnants of Bonham’s deafening rolls behind before it continues over a series of steep climbs and descents. Page increases the tension, pokes Bonham and teases Jones into a series of call and response discussions. A syncopated and accented jam takes place between the trio before a swinging groove develops, leading into a return to the song proper. Page initiates the return back to the framework with a maleficent chord change that induces uneasiness and excitement. Plant sings the second and only verse before Page takes a magnificent solo to conclude another all time version of ‘No Quarter.

The introspective and stunning ‘Ten Years Gone’ follows featuring John Paul Jones on his famous three necked guitar presenting  a 12 string, 6 string and mandolin.  A highlight of all of the 1977 concerts Jones and Page blend their respective instruments into an extended representation of lost love and regret. This amazing version sets the stage for the ‘sit down’ portion of the show, the upcoming acoustic set.  
Bonham moves to the front of the stage amidst smart ass comments by Percy. The acoustic set is a career retrospective beginning with a dramatic ‘Battle of Evermore’ containing JPJ on backing vocals. The entwined filigree’s of ‘Going to California’ offer diffused pinpricks of sunshine illustrated through Page and Jones delicate riffing. Plant offers a ‘Hot Diggity, its hard’ at the tunes beautiful conclusion. 

A stomping ‘Back Country Woman’ prelude rides on donkey kick drum from Bonham before segueing into a high octane back porch ‘Bron Aur Stomp’. The stellar acoustic set allowed for a brief respite before the upcoming climatic apex of the concert.

Page appears with his trusty Danelectro guitar for a solo segment of ‘White Summer/Black Mountain Side’ that tribally bounds on Bonham’s tom toms. Page uses his segment to segue into the 1977 tour highlight of ‘Kashmir’. ‘Kashmir’ is a typically extravagant 1977 version with JPJ’s orchestrated warm breeze Mellotron quotes and Pages phased riffing bringing the crowd to a rolling boil, concluding with a colossal Bonham led climax.

Bonham then gets his opportunity to amaze with a hyper extended half hour ‘Over the Top/Moby Dick’. Pharmaceutically charged and holy rolling Bonham is the schizophrenic drum corp. leader with awe inspiring triplets in triplicate. Bonham plays through rumbling Tympani and echoed and disorient jet liner effected drum rolls to the point of exhaustion, finally returning to the recognizable ‘Moby Dick’ theme.
Following the Bonham showcase, Page takes the stage alone for a diabolic and crazed array of soling first with plectrum then with bow. Pitch manipulated screams and streaks of found sound created by Page’s sonic creations abound during this segment. Listen for the quote of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. Page’s Echoplex and bow also add to the madness through deft uses of feedback and eye watering demonic conjuring. Page’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ bow theme appears, including a quote of ‘Beck’s Bolero’ and acts as a prelude to the full arsenal ‘tour de force’ of ‘Achilles Last Stand’. The bow solo slams your privates in a wooden drawer and then listens for the devil wind emanating from Page’s distorted guitar signaling the arrival of ‘Achillies’.

The band rises to the high standard of the previous songs and delivers a stellar version of ‘Achilles’. The diverse and multiple changes and studio guitars are no match for the bands enthusiasm and solid playing. Jones rattles the frets out of his bass neck too keep up with Bonham and Page plays the multiple guitar parts with flash and flair.  The concert could very well have ended here, but the band still has a bit more to give.

The expected but no less effective ‘Stairway to Heaven’ comes next with the band taking the song past twelve minutes and moving through the changes with grace. Page’s soling on the double neck is unique and well played. There is no other way that the main set of this concert could have been more properly concluded.

The band returns for the tour debut of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ which acts only as a short introduction to ‘Rock and Roll’ for the first encore, initiated by Bonham who will not take no for an answer. This song combo illustrates proof of the excitement the band felt during this inspired performance. They absolutely slam through this version of the oft-played classic. If that was not enough for the soaked up and rung out crowd the band returns for a second encore with label mate Mick Ralphs of Bad Company to join in on guitar. Plant again makes a humorous comment I will leave for the listener’s discovery. What the band does close the show with is an ultra rare rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘It’ll Be Me’. The band jams the tune like its an every night occurrence and Percy swaggers and sings with an early rock and roll attitude. A special conclusion with a special song for a unique concert filled with moments of note.

For fans of Led Zeppelin’s live excursions the soundboard recording ‘Texas Hurricane’ is an exciting representation of Zep’s 1977 tour. A nice companion to the famed ‘Destroyer’ boots, in many ways this concert equals and/or surpasses the performances in April.  The soundboard quality is just what every Zeppelin fan could ever want and the performance offers a few rare moments in addition to moments of pure musical genius.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Van Morrison - 'A Soul In Wonder' 1983's Inarticulate Speech of the Heart LP

Van Morrison is a legendary artist that creates regardless of time, place or perception. The music he conjures and shapes is immune to current fads, production values or media dissection. The Van LP spinning in the 'rock room' today is 1983’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. This under-appreciated record communicates on multiple and diverse levels with the listener. The LP’s title is an allusion to the act of communicating without speaking and a commentary on the act of prayer.

The album received mixed reviews when mindless critics compared it to other standards of Morrison’s discography; the ‘rock room’ finds the record the perfect collection for candlelight introspection, or as a soundtrack for quiet, pale dawn morning coffee and reflection. The imagery is succinct, the instrumentation tasteful and the melodies haunting. The record breathes the warm air of a lover’s breath and elicits the the comfort of home in spite of the possibly chilly touch of synthesizers. Morrison stays relatively restrained through the records two sides, leaving his rock and roll draped over the chair in the corner and bearing his naked truthful soul. The record remains a slight departure from what is expected from Morrison, and those departures usually will lead to the best art.

Four of the eleven tracks on the recording are instrumentals, an interesting display for Morrison. This LP was his final collection for his record label Warner Brothers, but that was not the reason for the instrumental movements. Keeping with the theme contained within the title of the record, Morrison uses the tracks to search for differing ways of expression and emotional communication not based in how that communication is articulated. Instrumentals can offer a completely different way of communicating with the listener. In the case of this record, Morrison asserts the themes of identity, memory, family heritage and love through multiple methods of sonic dissemination.

The album begins with the atmospheric yet funky ‘Higher than the World’. Morrison’s singing is restrained throughout intimate the verses before breaking through the clouds with a excited recitation of the chorus. The keyboards sway like trade winds, while a clean muted guitar lends the tune it’s brittle funkiness.The tune is one of Morrison’s finest melodic statements of the era and a conglomerate of the elements that will make up the rest of the record.

The tasteful keyboards quietly begin the next song, ‘Connswater’ on a hazy drift, before suddenly galloping across green rolling landscapes of Ireland with a joyous Irish statement. Big percussive drums take a turnaround mid song leaving the purely Irish jig of the instrumental verses to bob along buoyantly outside the darkened waters edge, An allusion to his future work with the Chieftains’, this song is a jumpy and overt instrumental tribute to Morrison’s heritage.
‘River of a Time’ follows and is a song that contains minimalist lyrics but maximum imagery, propagated by a churning arrangement reminiscent to these ears as something that would possibly come from Dylan’s 1989 LP Oh Mercy. The song is an invitation to a spiritual congregation on the ‘River of Time’ using nothing but your own ‘Heart and Soul’. A personal favorite off of the record, Van features on piano and combines the perfect portions of lyric, melody and mood to invoke introspection through this emotive and classic piece.

The second instrumental of the LP, ‘Celtic Swing’ sandwiches ‘River of Time’ and starts off in the agitated mists of swirling horns and synths before emerging with a maneuvering drum that does exactly what the title implies. This song continues through current times to remain a standard in Morrison's set lists, a fitting display of music and heritage for Morrison.

Closing the first side of the record, ‘Rave On John Donne’ follows a spoken word, rap, growl by Morrison that becomes a smooth croon by the crux of the tune. The lyrics immortalize a litany of writers and intellectuals and Morrison’s invocation to “Rave On’. The song dissipates into a drumless and weightless musical contemplation toward its conclusion. An epic song that can be interpreted in differing ways, again dependent on your view.

Side two begins, the album’s title track appears with a ‘No. 1' added to the end of the title indicating a continuation later on the side. The song is developed along the edges like a black room photo, slowly coming into focus.  The melodic mantra undulates with a woman’s wordless vocal intonations appearing as manfesting specters. The percussive piano in which the song settles on continuously folds over on itself until big drums emerge, encouraging the songs wings from earth into flight.

‘Irish Heartbeat’ follows, the song was recorded twice by Morrison once for Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and later on the 1988 release with the ‘Chieftains’, Irish Heartbeat. A song about faith, family and heritage, the song is inseparable from its creator; they are one and the same. Acoustic guitars churn, the melody feels traditional and familiar, Van's is voice thick and rich. If you are a fan of Van you know that this song pretty much sums it all up. Morrison's singing during the fade out is dramatically inspirational as he ‘da, da, da’s’ his way until the tape trails to silence.
‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ is the first injection of R and B on the record. The song brings out the ‘Street Choir’ as sweet backing vocals punctuate Morrison’s first ‘all out’ vocal attack of the LP. Placed perfectly in the track listing, the tune elicits alienation from someone who realizes that you can’t always return home no matter the circumstance. The song spotlights quintessential Van with a big band and taps some rock and roll shoes. Morrison blows some highlight horn on the song and his first open throat vocal blasts of the record initiate magic.

‘Cry for Home’ settles into a comfortable groove, a response to the previous song, comforting with the belief that there will be no more worry when you ‘hear the cry from home’. The instrumentation stays true to the record with clean plucky guitar tapping on the wide swath of synthesizer bedding. The chorus is of sing-along quality leaving me with a certain aspect of holiness especially when Van invites the chorus to take another round.  Morrison sings with a bird on his shoulder in the guise of a lofty flute. Beautiful.

The last but one song on the record comes as a second variation on a theme with ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart No. 2’. This segment of song uses the pre-scetched scene and expands on it through lyrical repetition and subtle melody explorations. Enveloped piano and keyboards develop subtle drifting phrases that shoot off of the central rhythm in sparkling flares. Morrison is indeed a 'soul in wonder' as he states confidently with a vibrant chorus behind him. Van also offers a few transparent quotes from his saxophone to swim amongst the musical watercolors.

The album closes with the final instrumental and possibly best one of the collection, ‘September Nights’. The light jazz of the piano/bass relationship initiates the almost drumless melody forward. A blue chorused acoustic guitar quotes a melody while Morrison and his singers moan in passionate response. The song reveals it’s insides when at first a stunning grand piano takes a solo, followed by Morrison becoming involved with a delicate horn/vocal call and response. The song becomes a classic book, subject to interpretation and reflection when its spine is cracked.  At first listen an odd choice as a closing number, but similarly to the entire record well placed when taken with its surrounding context. 

Van Morrison’s 1983 record Inarticulate Speech of the Heart hides clandestinely in the impressive volumes of Morrison’s diverse and influential catalog. The album features all of Morrison’s greatest strengths to wonderful effect through honest and sometimes experimental compositions. As an aside, in my opinion the LP is also a somewhat rare case of an artist using the production values of the early 1980’s to some of their greatest strengths. In addition, one of his most enduring songs sits snugly on the ‘B’ side of the record ready to be discovered by a hopeful future music lover when searching out classic vinyl records. The rest of the collection features soulful recitations of pure Van Morrison songwriting and spectacular instrumental prowess. A divine record of note that if you know well you should revisit and if you haven’t heard it, search it out now.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tools of the Trade: "Hide It In Your Case' Rick Danko's Fretless Ampeg Bass Guitar

As a founding member of a rather inconspicuous group of rock musicians, Rick Danko, bass player for 'The Band' is not only one of the more unique bass players in rock history, but one of rock's more under appreciated players. It's only fitting he would a specialized instrument that matched his quirky bass talents. Danko's plump bass notes locked in perfect conjunction with Levon Helm's woody thump resulting in one of the greatest all time rock and roll rhythm sections. After some early measure of fame Danko was the recipient of some new musical gear. 'The Band' always game for an additional musical color were ready for another factor the separated them from the 'normal' groups.

Around 1970 a different type of aural shading started to appear on 'The Band's' studio releases and on the concert stage. The 1970 LP Stage Fright is the first noticeable recipient of  Danko's 1968(?) Ampeg AMVB-1 fretless bass, the subject of this Tools of the Trade.The instrument was actually recently auctioned off in late 2014 and its date of build was recorded as 'around' 1968 serial number M120. The opening song from the aforementioned LP, 'Strawberry Wine' burps buoyant bubbles because of Danko's slippery fretless slides to the notes. This is the first 'official' appearance of Danko's new instrument which he reportedly received from Ampeg along with a new fretted bass as well as a stand up.

The red burst fretless bass soon became Danko's 'go to' instrument in both recording and performance. Like previously stated the bass started to make an impact around the release of Stage Fright. The custom scroll top bass would later be finished black by Danko and outfitted with two Fender precision pickups. Danko used flat wound steel strings and most of the time played with a heavy pick for as he stated, 'clarity, punch and definition'. The bass also contains two 'f holes' one of the special defining characteristics of the instrument.
Danko was quoted as saying, 'I don't play bass, I fill space' in a 1976 interview and his expessed affinity for the fretless becomes clear after examining the quote. The fretless offered Danko numerous shading options when laying down the immense groove he is famous for. Danko played with 'feel' and due to the construction of the Ampeg fretless bass he could caress the beat and slide into the slots left open by Levon Helm. The bass allowed for a more fluid approach, this difference is illustrated in an instructional video included below where Danko illustrates both a fretted and fretless approach.

The new found finger freedom allowed Danko to conjure the cascading bass line that closes 'Just Another Whistle Stop', to create the weeping willow string sway of 'All La Glory' and to close Stage Fright with the profound and foreboding bass introduction of 'The Rumor'. On stage Danko also pushed air with the Ampeg bass as can be witnessed on the existing footage from the 1970 Festival Express concert tour. The entire Rock of Ages live set contains the Ampeg in all its glory. The iconic opening do the famed song 'Don't Do It' was drawn from the wood of the Ampeg and that alone is enough to cement its legendary celebrity and legacy.
Danko differentiated the fretted and the fretless with the opposition of 'steel against steel' versus 'steel against wood'. Whatever the music required is how Danko would determine his method of musical resonance. Danko was one of the first fretless players in rock and a pioneer in its use and application within the array of musical flavors in 'The Band'. Rick Danko's bass playing was and is as recognizable as any guitar players sonic fingerprint. If you hear it, you know.

Another fine example of the instrument in action in a unexpected place in on Neil Young's 1974 album On the Beach. The song 'Revolution Blues' features 'The Band' rhythm section and spotlights Danko's bounding and excitable bass lines.  An admirable and amazing display of Danko's peculiar approach to the instrument as well as expressing the singular personality of the bass.
Because the Ampeg fretless bass became Danko's favorite method of musical dissemination its tone can be enjoyed on many documents such as the 1971 LP Cahoots, Dylan's 1973 LP Planet Waves, the live albums Rock of Ages, Before the Flood and the film of the Last Waltz. A 'rock room' favorite and fitting conclusion to this tribute to Danko and his implement is to enjoy the track, 'Last of the Blacksmith's from 1971's Cahoots. Danko growls the opening licks of this 'lost' classic and continues to elicit a smile to this very day with the rubbery lines that coat the chorus. 

The iconic instrument now has a happy owner as it sold at auction for $37,500 in late 2014. Eddie Vedder the lead singer from 'Pearl Jam' revealed he was that owner on the Howard Stern Show and that the bass hangs on the wall of his studio. A testament to the enduring legacy of Danko and the instrument that allowed him to express his art.

Rick Danko Teaches the Bass

Last of the Blacksmiths

The Band-Don't Do It (Video)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Put the Boot In: Stephen Stills - 'It's the Ride' 1978 Bread and Roses Festival

Pulled from the Rock Room vault is a 1978 radio broadcast of a Stephen Stills solo performance at the Bread and Roses Festival on September 4, 1978. The concert took place at the Greek Theatre over September 2-4, 1978 and Stephen Stills was a last second addition to the bill along with already performing friends Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and others.

The recording is a slightly sterile broadcast soundboard probably hailing from cassette but clear in its capture and representation of a Stills solo acoustic performance. There is a light hiss at high volume but nothing that detracts from the enjoyment of the show. The first two tracks feature a rogue tambourine that is either from a drum machine or some enterprising folks assisting Stills with a rhythm. The performance is one of Stills finest; it finds Stephen in a laid back groove, in good humor and playing a unique set list for the assembled crowd. The positivity of the performance emanates from the tape, partly due to the accepting and eager audience.

Stills greets the crowd and comments, ‘I’ve never seen so many guys do so many things so many times, over and over’, before beginning a groovy and somewhat apprehensive ‘Love the One Your With’. The loopy vibe is similar to another Stills song from the 70’s, ‘Buying Time’ ‘Love the One Your With’ gains momentum and by the last chorus Stills elongates the lines into a frozen rope falsetto and pulls the vocal rip cord unfurling his voice to the delight of the crowd.

A rare rendition of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ follows with Stills reconstructing the expected Bo Diddley’ beat into a striding back country campfire strum fest. Stills vocals are hiccuped accentuated and completely invested in the performance. Stills takes a few liberties’ with the lyrics, expanding the scope of the tune and injecting a signature originality to the song. A careful listen reveals a female voice adding some off stage vocal additions late in the rendition. 

The crowd responds in kind with great applause, Stills rewards them by stating that he is going to perform a more recent song, but he cannot remember the words, so he will use a lyric sheet because he is ‘not proud’. What follows is a stunning early version of what would become the song cycle the ‘Spanish Suite’ first appearing in its entirety on 2005’s Man Alive. Here in its formative stages Stills moves through the various sections of the tune on solo acoustic. The song opens with a short guitar solo prelude before Stills voice begins to croon in a gentle Spanish to the surprise of some audience members.  Stills confidently navigates foreign musical waters, his voice surging and then retreating in dynamic grace with the warm movement of his taught acoustic strings. A special performance.

                                                       Photo: Michael Weinstock   

A quick ‘thank you’ to the crowd and Stills slips on his weather worn traveling shoes, heading to a quiet cafĂ© for a candlelight conversation comprised of Stephen’s personal idol Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’. Whispered gently like a secret, Stills lullabies’ the verses and takes a measured levitating solo break. The crowd loves this one.

With only a brief pause Stills keeps the emotional momentum at a premium. A short crisp finger picked introduction clears the vines and reveals the aged opening to ‘4+20’. Keeping with the theme of the concert this is a definitive performance. Stills decorates the circular melody with opulent detail and sings the song in a moaning broken voice representative of the troubled narrator.

Introducing the next song as ‘somebody else’s, a rare performance of the Rick Roberts (Flying Burrito Brothers and Firefall fame) song ‘Colorado’ follows. A song that Stills could obviously relate to through his deep connection to the Rocky Mountain state. Stills smoky alpine vocals drift across the current warm California landscape longing for the pine tree time of his beloved Colorado Mountains. A Stephen Stills fan will be hard pressed to find another performance of such refinement and glory.

Stills makes a few humorous comments about his teeth and ‘Rolling Stone’ before inviting ‘Mark’ on stage to add some railroad harp to a rare performance of the traditional longing of ‘Take Me Back to the Ohio Valley’.

Yet another rare track follows with a performance of ‘Jesus Gave Away Love For Free’ hailing from the 1972 Manassas LP. A  fiddle player named (Green?) joins Stills on stage for an intimate version of the rarely performed song.
What follows tops even the preceding performance with a lofty reading of the early environmentalist song ‘Fallen Eagle’ again hailing from the 1972 Manassas LP. After some on stage adjustments the song drops from a treetop. This version careens around summits and ascends through the clouds with a reckless freedom. Just Stills and the fiddle player shit kicking and taking names. The song salutes a perfectly constructed set of traditional and earthy originals played with a tender and respectful hand.

Stills moves to the piano stool for a gut bucket reading of Otis Redding’s ‘Old Man Trouble’, a song that would later become a standard in Stills live sets. This version extends past eight minutes and moves into a spoken verse section where Stephen growls a bit and really digs into it. The freedom felt by Stills in the set is illustrated though the easy going nature of these Stills piano improvs.

There are some slight tape issues that appear in this segment of tape but rectify themselves quickly. The acoustic guitar returns for what seems to me to be a premier performance of ‘Thoroughfare Gap’. Stills introduces it as a new song that he had been trying to record for ‘three years’ and that he won’t be reading the lyrics for this particular performance.  Stills moves confidently through the multiple verses, climbing toward the blue sky over deadfall and earthy decompositions on the forest floor. Stumbling only once, Stills sings his mistake away and continues in orotund voice to dictate his recently composed travel tale. Admittedly this particular performance is a ‘rock room’ favorite as well as perfectly illustrating Stills sometimes underrated songwriting prowess.
A vehement demonstration of the Stills concert classic Crossroads/Can’t Catch Me ends the second acoustic segment. Stills flaunts his superior acoustic guitar abilities through the blues/ rock standard reenactment with his hollow body. Percussive thumps, picks, stops and pulls emanate from Stills acoustic as he growls his way through the classic duo. Stills fingered acoustic guitar bass licks in ‘Can’t Catch Me’ climb the fire escape rung by rung as he raps through Chuck Berry’s original lines in one particular musical moment of note. The song segue climaxes in Stills screaming in church revival satisfaction as the crowd responds back excitedly to his blues hollers. Jammed this section a couple of times for good measure.

The conclusion of the set comes with Stills returning to the piano stool for an extended sixteen minute get down with the combination of ’49 Bye Byes/For What It’s Worth. Stills grooves playfully throughout the rendition of the concert warhorse, singing with range and careful enunciation. His always interesting piano playing gets an extended examination under the solo spotlight. At one point responding to hollers from the audience Stills replies,  ‘Listen harder’ in addition to another funny comment I’ll leave for the reader to discover. By the time Stills rolls into ‘For What It’s Worth’, many singers and musicians have joined the stage contributing joyous vocals, celebratory hand claps and a gospel flair. A collaborative vocal crescendo is reached, a tapestry of interweaving voices chanting the classic chorus with Stills coaxing the assembled voices to ascend to higher peaks. A very unique and inspiring version of a couple of Stills ‘best’ songs and rock standards.

The unique set list, stellar playing and solid soundboard quality of Stephen Stills at the Greek September 4, 1978 makes the recording essential for rock fans looking to add a Stills show to their vaults. While lacking Stills usual screaming electric guitar displays, the performance finds the acoustic Stills playing with confidence, humor and with a focus on a superior vocal performance. The honest stage dialog and off the cuff celebratory nature of the song choices only increase the power of the performance. Essential listening.

Friday, January 2, 2015

'Chicago' 1972 LP Chicago V -'Living In That Dream'

Pulled from the stuffed ‘rock room’ record shelves today is the 1972 album from ‘Chicago’, numbered five in the groups’ chronology and housed in a wood carved cover that resonates with the rich and earthy music contained within. Released on July 10, 1972 this particular album features the original group in all of their musical glory and in a certain sense reaching a musical peak. The compositions on Chicago V find the band experimenting with rhythms, scales and experimental horn charts all while brushing against the edges of the progressive music movement.  The studio recording is funky, moody and plays almost as one entire musical movement comprised of diverse and multiple moods. This is not the ‘Chicago’ of power ballad fame or sappy warm radio station dissemination's. This is the most underrated powerhouse rock/soul review that every music fan has heard of but many have never really heard.

Keyboardist Robert Lamm is a formidable power on the LP, writing eight out of the ten songs on the collection in addition to playing stratospheric keys throughout.  Peter Cetera did not offer any originals to the record but still offered a large dose of his underrated bass skills and distinctive vocals. Terry Kath, while only contributing one song, burns through the Lamm compositions with some of his most aggressive playing to ever be committed to tape, experimenting with tone and feel. The entire group is playing as one cohesive unit on the record, their previous recordings and performances seem to lead up to this particular sonic nexus.The ‘Chicago’ horns of Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider are the grease for the wheel, painting with breathy swashes of color, contributing multiple aesthetics to the tracks, whether through horny jazzy improvs, gentle breathy kisses, or rock and roll soul train blasts. 
The LP was recorded during the era of ‘Chicago’s legendary Live at Carnegie Hall  record and the creative juices from that collection spill over and stain this particular recording. A subtle breeze of white noise and guitar vibratto opens the record revealing the shifty introduction to ‘A Hit By Varese’.  The song is a percolating current of puffy keyboards and tangled bass and drums. Kath's crosscut rhythm playing drives the shiftiness of the tune. The song is a commentary and tribute to French composer Edgar Varese, influential to the group and other rock musicians. The content, Lamm’s expressed wonderment at the idea that Varese would ever become ‘mainstream’ with the help of 'Chicago's' musicianship. As far as the instrumentation, a mid song rendezvous between all three horn players results in the carpet being pulled out from under the listener all the while sliding on blue bolts of Kath guitar feedback streaks. What an opening and what an amazing introductory jam! 

The so groovy ‘All Is Well’ follows emanating a sugary pop funkiness. The vocal blend is perfect, one created voice similar to a CSN vocal attack. While the song hints at Chicago’s future excursions into explosive pop anthems, here the song is hand over suede smooth and allows for a tasteful concentration and play on the groove. The definition of a 'deep cut'.

‘Now That you’ve Gone’ comes next and is a James Pankow composition while featuring Kath’s first lead vocal of the record. The mood of the song teeters between the subterranean burrowing of the verses and the contrasting illuminated Cetera sung chorus. The track begins its birth with cavernous thumping tom-tom’s, sticky wah-wah’d keyboards and Kath’s clean sheet Steve Cropper scrubbing. The tune also contains a nicely extended and dizzying outro jam revealing a screaming Parazaider sax solo as well as a mid song switch to 5/4 time that keeps things sonically interesting.
 The first side of the record closes with the seven minute suite ‘Dialogue Parts I and II’. A truncated version of these songs was released as a successful single; the LP contains the extended edition. Opening with another irresistible Terry Kath guitar groove that crawls from your ears to your smiling lips, ‘Dialog’ spotlights alternating and shared vocals between Kath and Cetera. Both singers are in character Kath acting as the politically charged and motivated party, speaking to the ambivalent sleepwalker Cetera who would rather sit by uninvolved. During the segue between the song segments, Kath takes a fantastic strangled solo that morphs into a syrupy guitar tug of war with the horns, Cetera’s rubber bass and Danny Seraphine’s deadbolt drumming. Seraphine is the champion of the record, cementing the foundation in which all of the instrumental magic can take place. The highlight song of the first side becomes a joyful joining of ideas and voices as the mantra of ‘We can change the world now, we can make it happen, we can save the children’ echoes throughout until its crisp acapella conclusion.

The flip side of the record opens with a cymbal wind and prodding horns before crashing into the defiant and racing, ‘While the City Sleeps’. The songs sludgy punctuated introduction alternates with a serpentine, ascending and kinetic verse structure. The horns breathlessly answer the vocals apprehensive plea, before Kath again scribbles out a Telecaster solo that reveals an incendiary series of twists and turns. The transistor tone of his guitar in conjunction with the moaning drone of horns highlight this definitive track in the canon of ‘Chicago’. This is a weighty groove being laid down; the rhythm section is especially excitable and on point. A serrated beginning to the second side of music.
 In well placed contrast, the ‘big’ song on the album, as well as a ‘Chicago’ signature, Lamm’s ‘Saturday in the Park ’is the next song in rotation. The song is well written, well played and produced and is a hit for a reason. A perfect, pastoral, put you there in the moment pop song. ‘Can You Dig It?” 'Yes I Can.'

 Cetera powerfully croons Lamm’s strutting ‘State of the Union’ as well as the following song ‘Goodbye’. ‘State of the Union’ comes first and moves in stony protest with Kath’s watery guitar lapping against the solid breakwall of horns. Under this swelling motion Cetera and Seraphine nail the furniture to the floor in a groove worthy of the listeners’ attention. The song sounds under sinister street lights, dark nights and creepy cats.

‘Goodbye’ follows and is in my opinion the ‘jazziest’, for lack of a better term, track on the entire record. It is also quite multifaceted, opening with a swirling and extended horn prelude, moving into a breezy verse and slick trumpet solo and finally landing into a churning groove that feathers into a quickly appearing ‘chorus’. The multiple breakdowns contained within the song structure fit like locked hands, in spite of their divergent personalities.

Concluding, there could be no other tune to close this particular album with than Terry Kath’s ‘Alma Mater’. The acoustic guitar and piano based track is sparse in its construction in relation to the preceding songs. Kath’s soulful throat expresses as much hopefulness through its timbre as the words express through their meaning. The drums enter for verse two and the ‘rock room’ can only compare this vocal performance to a Richard Manuel performance for the ‘Band’. I say this because of the way this vocal can shake the leaves from the trees and pull memories and dreams from a musical soul. The song resembles a traditional gospel tune in its grace and timeless melody.  When the chorus comes around and all of vocalists join with T.K. in harmony and brotherhood, it’s a major musical moment worthy of time reflection.

‘Chicago’s’ 1972 LP Chicago V is not only underrepresented in rock history, but quite possibly in the groups own catalog. The album is made up of multiple components both in lyrical content and instrumental expressions. There is social commentary, loss, reflection, hopefulness and even a discussion played out between varying view points. The music gathers differing points of influence from unique places, but eventually rests on its own special personnel and stellar songwriting. For fans of ‘Chicago’ none of this should be a surprise, for rock fans who have not yet delved into the fruitful waters of ‘Chicago’s discography, look no further than the fifth chapter in their storied history.