Talk From The Rock Room: October 2023

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Rolling Stones -Hackney Diamond LP - "Mess It Up"

Would you let your daughter date a Rolling Stone? 

Who would have thought that a band of rowdies that was causing trouble and writing rebellious rock and roll music would release a full-length album of new material over six decades later? While the Rolling Stones have eroded over the years, they continue to roll downhill with velocity toward musical immorality. With founding members Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, and the recently departed Charlie Watts faded from view, the core of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards continue to blaze a path around fallen comrades and through the electric fence of the music industry. Ronnie Wood, who joined the band in 1974 is a foundational rock in the band’s historic boulder field and with Keith and Mick represents the still sharpened trident of the Rolling Stones. 

The Stones new record Hackney Diamonds is the group’s first album of original music, since A Bigger Bang, released 18 years ago. Spinning on the “rock room” turntable today is the result of the group’s recording hiatus. No, it’s not the best Rolling Stones record since … (insert LP here), it is simply legendary musicians doing their work and doing it well. Complacency from fame and familiarity may have dulled the group’s ability to craft a new collection of songs, instead, these factors increased their edgy relevance and encouraged them to create an album comprised of recognizable elements and fresh approaches. The recording runs the gamut from the classic to current and sounds energetic and ambitious. The band brought in producer Andrew Watt to cultivate their vision for the record that had been marinating in various studios and in the minds of Richards’ and Jagger for fifteen years. Keith recently said to Mojo, "[Watt] brought exactly what Mick and I needed to make the record. A lot of freshness, a lot of know how about how records are made these days. Because, I mean, there's not little spools going around and around - I wish there were.” Watt lets the Stones do what they do best, while lending an attentive ear and updated approach. His influence is felt in many of the vocal harmonies, and he is credited on some of the songwriting, featuring on the opening three tracks. 

Hard core fans will note some light brush strokes of auto-tune on Jagger’s vocals, or current pop production choices by Watt. But, distilled to its essence, the album reveals the still sharp crosscut saw riffing by Wood and Richards hacking through the aesthetic gloss. The songs are immediate and feel anxious to get their stories told. 

The first single and opening track is “Angry,” a disgruntled maelstrom of sexy, steamy and angular riffs that recalls a packed summer stadium bobbing to the hard rhythm. A fitting kick off to the record similar to past glories like “Start Me Up,” or even “Rocks Off,” the song aggressively flexes its muscles in the opening slot. Jagger’s vocals soothe the aggression with singing that explores reconciliation through melodic exploration. 

The “rock room’s” favorite track follows with the second song on side one, “Get Close,” a track that starts with the pulse of Steve Jordan’s drums before being sliced into pieces by a five stringed wire brush scrubbing of the central guitar lick. The song’s chorus is a sweet, yet clandestinely threatening request to get close to the song’s subject. The mid song break recalls a Stones classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” replete with thumping percussion and a gritty sax solo. 

“Depending On You,” slows things down with a bit of Jagger/Richards/Watt balladry. “Bite My Head Off,” is an expletive dressed and toothy jam highlighted by Paul McCartney on an aggressive fuzz bass. The cut is exactly what you’d expect from such a collaboration, with Jagger calling out to Macca during his mid-song bass breakout. With sharpened teeth and an animalistic gait the Stones charge through a tune with their still scary and original punk attitude. 

“Whole Wide World,” is laminated in a sleek production, and feels like a Jagger solo cut. That’s not a bad thing, it has a different feel to it and a nagging melody. Regardless, it’s a fun number that the band has already played on stage at their New York City premier party and feels like it will be a number that sticks around. 

“Dreamy Skies,” finds Jagger in a pastoral field smack dab in the middle of Stones country. The tune is a cloudy drumless drift decorated with a Ronnie Wood slide line that recalls his early Faces days. Keith and Mick harmonize like the Burrito Brothers on one of the best lyric and music matched on the record. The second side of the LP loses a bit of its sheen and rolls around in the grit. 

“Mess It Up,” features the late great Charlie Watts laying down a hi-hat driven dance groove. Jagger plays Bowie and gets it on with a strobe light groove that illustrates the influence of Andrew Watt and his ability to modernize the Stones sound without losing their authenticity. An important song in the context of the record and one that illustrates the Stones continued relevance. 

 “Live By the Sword,” features both Charlie Watts and skins, and Sir Elton John on some jangling piano. The hip thrusting groove of the verses is built on quick string stabs by the Wood Richards duo. The result is just this side of honky tonk, and the chorus retains the recognizable Rolling Stones sneer. Mick plows through rhyming couplets, but it’s the attitude of his vocal that really levels the song up. A crisp Wood solo and well placed handclaps recall the days when it was only rock and roll. 

“Driving Me to Hard,” is a mid-tempo weaving of guitars that has that easy Stones swing. Even without Watts, the rhythm section gets the feel just right. As is the case of the entire LP, the lyrics are relevant relationship commentary, not a slow rumination on age and mortality

The last three cuts of the album increase the intensity through a moving triad of music. “Tell Me Straight,” is the token Richards lead vocal, a lo-key bluesy rumination highlighted by Jagger’s harmonizing. A beautifully melodic solo from Woody puts the straight forward melody on a curve.

The penultimate song on the record, “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,”features Stevie Wonder on keyboards and Lady Gaga on vocals with Mick. The songs faithful sway spotlights an angel band that reminds the “rock room” of the Stones cover of “Love In Vain,” and the Faces reading of “I Should Have Been Blind.”
The spacious arrangement slowly rises to the source of the sounds in a wash of diffused glory.  Wonder's piano lends just the right amount of old time religion to the mixture. Lady Gaga joins for the second verse organically echoing Jaggers lines. Mick and Gaga are a heavenly pair cajoling each other into a higher plain. Jagger sings with a grit the contrasts his age and Gaga with a slippery soul. 

The song has a false ending where only the rhythm section and Wonder are caught on a spacious vamp. An audio verité result where Lady Gaga  freestyles her way back to the Jagger and a magnificent conclusion. “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” is an epic set up for the albums final number. 

The album closes with a sparse cover of Muddy Waters classic, “Rolling Stone.” The song that gave the group its name and the blues that gave the band its influence. Mick and Keith, two tumbling dice in a lo-fi duet of acoustic guitar and harmonica. A statement about where they came from and who they are. A proper closing chapter to the diverse collection of material the preceded it. It existence perhaps the most important statement of the record. If Hackney Diamonds is the last Rolling Stones record it is a fitting finale and welcome addition to the Stones discography and legacy. While it will be compared to past glories, it’s strengths tell its own story. The hope is that the songs are afforded the opportunity to reveal their individual strengths on a live stage. We can only hope that in this case that time is always on the Stones side.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Rock Room on the Road: Martin Barre Band - Live at Fort Hill Performing Arts Center October 9, 2023

Legendary rock and roll guitarist and songwriter Martin Barre of Jethro Tull fame brought his "A Brief History of Tull" concert tour to the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua, NY on October 9, 2023. An intimate and beautiful sounding room played host to a eclectic array of songs from Barre’s forty plus years as the lead guitarist in Jethro Tull. His guitar was a foundational element of Jethro Tull’s compositions, often blurring genre’s and rooted in complex excursions in melody. The evening was designed a chronological exploration of Tull’s impressive catalog. The songs handpicked by Barre were not his only favorite compositions, but songs that fit the abilities of his new band. The tunes well played tributes, as well as fresh reinterpretations. 

The four-piece group was comprised of Martin Barre on lead guitar, Alan Thompson, bass, Darby Todd on drums and percussion, and vocalist and guitarist Dan Crisp. No song was off limits for the lineup, and they explored the Tull catalog with power and grace. While there was a noticeable lack of flute for some Tull fans, Barre and Crisp’s dexterous guitar work more than made up for the potential loss. Crisp’s vocals resonated and hit the note consistently. A notated scroll was shown on the stage screen detailing the Tull era's being traced by the band and placing the music in a context.

Barre took the stage and stepped up to his mounted acoustic guitar and picked out the resplendent opening to “Look at the Sun,” from Jethro Tull’s 1969 Stand Up record. The song segued into “Someday the Sun,” a track from the group’s 1968 debut. Barre would move easily from acoustic guitar to electric throughout the evening, even playing a bit of flute. In front of a vibrant and ever-changing video screen thematically mirroring the on-stage narrative, the group bounced between songs from Tull’s first two records. After a deft scurry through the fuzzy instrumental “Cat’s Squirrel,” Barre picked up a flute and played his own delicate “Serenade to a Cuckoo,” from the Jethro Tull This Was record. 

The band was only testing the Finger Lake waters, and before long threw themselves from the shoreline into the deep with some serious jamming. “Bouree',” from Stand Up began the journey with stunning guitar work taking the place of some of Ian Anderson’s breathy blasts on the flute. Just like the album versions, “Bouree,’” fell into a multifaceted performance of the song “Back to the Family."

The band careened through the early 1970’s with deep and well-known cuts from Benefit and Aqualung, including “My God,” two halves of which were separated by a diversion into the classical piece “Palladio,” by Karl Jenkins. The band shows off, locking down the rhythm section while Barre explored every nuance of the melody.

Barre still plays with a vibrant and youthful ambition. His Paul Reed Smith guitar, a silvery sonic arrow slicing the air, dancing through the changes. The exclusive guitar driven arrangements soaring through the historical Tull back catalog. 

Dan Crisp’s multiple vocals were a highlight throughout the set. Especially evident on “Black Satin Dancer,” where out of the verses a sneaky jam coagulates featuring multiple guitar driven highlights throughout the song. A snippet of the cut “Back Door Angels,” is also deftly tucked into the arrangement.

Despite having some equipment issues which he took in stride, Barre and the band closed the set with a devastating three song run through 1974’s underrated War Child album. “War Child,” and the atonal central lick of “Sea Lion,” were an electric carnival, a medieval blues. Meter changes and heavy interchangeable melody lines by the string players brought the opening set to a well-earned conclusion.

The second set focused on the later portion of Jethro Tull’s career and in no way lost any momentum gained by the first. The powerful rhythm section of Thompson and Todd framing both Barre and Crisp’s cinematic lines. The riffing got fast and furious with “Acres Wild,” from 1978’s Heavy Horses. The pastoral riffing of the original turned edgy in the heavy hands of the Martin Barre Band. 

Barre changed over from his PRS guitar to a Fender Stratocaster for the first songs of the set. A surprising reading of the two versions of “Under Wraps,” from Jethro Tull’s 1984 LP of the same name followed. The record, a favorite of Barre’s, is a polarizing recording for Tull fans because of its use of synthesizers and preprogrammed drums. The Barre Band versions of the songs are stripped to their studs and given a new life with a fresh approach and sonic painting. 

Also freed from their constricting "of the time" production values, songs like “Under Wraps #2” and “Protect and Survive,” became pallets for orchestrated guitars and Barre’s oily tone. “Protect and Survive,” was played as complicated instrumental, a rolling cobblestone of progressive string bending. 

The churning paranoid intuition of “Watching Me,” was one of four songs played on the evening from Jethro Tull’s 1982 record The Broadstone and the Beast, with Barre lending some groovy, sonic manipulation and flittering flute to the song. After a poignant dual guitar driven “Slow Marching Band,” the band closed the second set with a towering “Steel Monkey,” from 1987’s Crest of a Knave.  
Eschewing the chronology and announcing the encore, Barre and his band blew off some steam with the two-fer of “Locomotive Breath,” and “Hymn 43.” Both songs spotlighted Barre riffs that epitomize the expansive breadth of his influence and abilities. The crowd responded in kind to the perfect choices.

By surrounding himself with able accompanists to help share his vision of the Tull catalog, Barre has brought a sense of unity to the separatism that has defined the Jethro Tull name since his departure in 2012. His guitar playing a critical piece in the Jethro Tull soundscape and concurrently in the guitar styles and approaches to come out of the 1970's and into the beyond.

Martin Barre Band 2022 Complete Show