Thursday, May 28, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Will Weston: Heart of the Order

Greetings, readers! I know you all enjoy the books reviews that I post on this site (well, at least I hope you do!). I've begun to review music as well, like the new Blur album that I reviewed last month. I thought it would also be nice if I could review albums by artists on indie labels in order to spread the word and help these musicians get some much deserved exposure for the great music they're making. Well, I've been blessed in my maiden voyage to this territory with the subject of the present review, San Francisco-based Will Weston's sophomore album Heart of the Order.

I first became aware of Will's new album a few months ago and from the first listen I've really enjoyed it. In his own words, Will Weston is a San Francisco-based songwriter and guitarist exported from humble roots in Maui, Hawaii. Weston's early exposure to rhythm and blues met with an attraction toward guitar-led rock and pop music. Relocating to the Bay Area, Weston recorded his debut album, "Quiet, Sirens," in 2012, forming the roots of his current rhythm section and enjoying a string of live shows and an outpouring of support that catapulted him within months to the Bay Area's top stages.

 Now backed by a 6-piece rhythm section, Weston has released his sophomore album, "Heart of the Order." With an energetic live presence, an emphasis on playing, and a frustratingly loyal support base, Weston & Co. are an artery to San Francisco's still-beating rock and roll heart, ascending the hills one contagious riff at a time.

Photo credit: Zona Foto

I've listened through to Heart of the Order several times now and each listen has revealed something new and interesting in the way the songs are constructed. To me, the overall sound of Weston and his band melds the funky/jazzy grooves and incisive and witty lyrics of vintage Steely Dan with the melodic pop sensibilities of late 1980s XTC, with a dash of early Chicago sprinkled in. The music is definitely guitar/bass/drums driven, but the keyboards and horns are an essential part of the sound and are always present without ever getting in the way (except for the times when they're supposed to). I decided to write up the album track by track, but I urge you to listen for yourself as it sounds even better than I'm able to convey with mere words.

Will's band consists of the man himself on guitar and vocals, as well as:

Cyril Guiraud on tenor sax
Brandon Jackson on trumpet and flugelhorn
Anthony Petrocchi on drums
Dan Manian on bass guitar
Erik Strom on guitars
Robert Kennedy on organs and keys

Some choppy delayed guitar chords kick off the song and album, leading into a song that has a bit of Steely Dan flavor mixed with some early 1980s Joe Jackson.  A great groove and sound, while Weston's vocals sound a bit like Joe Jackson in the verses and Andy Partridge in the choruses. It's at once both lush and beautiful, with the energy going up a notch in the chorus. I love the electric piano flourishes in background and the guitar solo at the end is fantastic, with a really smooth yet biting attack that is just great.

This is one of my favorite songs on the album! It's got a funky groove with a driving bass that really propels the song and some tasty pianet filling in the spaces. The horn section and organ are great and the sudden change in the middle 8 is really nice. I absolutely love what the bass guitar and horns are doing in outro...the entire song has a very summery type of feel and would have fit right in on classic albums like XTC's Oranges and Lemons or Wasp Star.

3. Oblivion Song

A slightly laid back, breezy tune with an infectious guitar-and-horn riff, a Steely Dan-ish groove, and a catchy chorus. 

4. Tell Me

A syncopated Phish-type groove with horns and keyboards heralds the song's arrival before the vocals start.  The sparser verses contrast really well with the organ and horn led chorus, and the lush vocal harmonies and saxophone solo at the end of the song are just beautiful.

5. Search Engine

This is definitely the heaviest song on the album, with some distorted guitar chords and bass lines during the intro giving way to jazzy horns and an insistent drumbeat played out by a steady four beat snare drum. From the overall sound to the rapid vocal delivery it sounds a lot like late 1980s XTC, which is a very good thing!

6. Trace of Your Flaws

Some soft electric piano starts off this quieter song, which has some understated and gentle vocals from Weston and nice ensemble playing from the band. I like the picked guitar melody and harmony vocals during the chorus, and the addition of some muted trumpet is a welcome touch.

7. One Step

Jazzy chords and shimmering organ start off the song which sounds like an early 1980s New Wave song crossed with jazzy Chicago or Steely Dan horns. There's a great chord change heading into the chorus and with the very resonant vocal it really takes off. The synth solo sounds a bit like 1970s prog-rock by way of Spock's Beard which is fine with me. It's little touches like the electric piano and the backing vocals in the chorus that show the attention to detail and atmosphere that the whole band used when putting the album together.

8. Born True

A nice groove right from the onset dictated by the drums and a great bass line. Some quietly intense horns come in before the vocals start with craftily understated guitar arpeggios and a laid back vocal. The electric piano solo and hand claps add a special touch in the middle of this great song.

9. Quiet Spark

This one starts with jazzy horns that sound like they could have come out of a smoky club years ago before giving way to a shuffle-type drum pattern and jazzy guitar figures. It's a quiet Steely Dan-type song that sounds as though it would fit perfectly on Gaucho (apart from Weston's voice, which has a hushed quality that fits the mood of the song more than Donald Fagen's pinched, nasal tone would). Love that jazzy guitar solo, too.

Photo Credit: Zona Foto
10. Hands Up

Another killer groove with a funky guitar lick that starts it all off. The horns and guitar play a dual lead melody and there are some nice rhythm kicks in between each phrase. There's a great breakdown section in the middle with just drums and a rocking guitar riff (doubled by the bass) that gradually builds up layer by layer with organ and vocals and an almost spoken-word rap.  It concludes with a ripping guitar solo that wouldn't be out of place in a 1970s hard rock song...the bass guitar underneath it is awesome, too. As the song ends, a bit of studio chatter and laughter ends it all on a lighter note.

Overall, this is a very strong album with a variety of textures and sounds all woven around Will and the band's distinctive sound. There are hooks that will stay with you long after you've listened and it stands up really well to repeated plays. As always, I urge you to support musicians both big and small...listen to their music, buy it, go see them live, and spread the word! You can buy Heart of the Order by clicking on the link and if you like what you've heard/read here, please do so! Here's to  what Will and his band come up with next while I continue to enjoy this one!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Every Concert Has a Story Behind It...

You may have noticed the series of posts I've been writing over the course of the last few months on some of the concerts I've been to over the years. In case you were wondering what my impetus for writing them is, I figured a short post discussing this very point might be helpful. I did touch on it briefly in the first entry in the series, but when I went back and read it I didn't think I did a very good job conveying what my thought process was, so here's my chance for a do-over...

Basically, I had spent some time several months ago thinking about all of the concerts I've been to over the past (almost) twenty years since I first started going to shows. Not only did I reminisce about all of the different artists I've seen, but I also started to think about the different things that happened before, during, and after each show. What really opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing this series was a discussion I had with a friend about something funny that happened at one of the shows I'd seen years before. Then, I told him about something weird that happened at another one, and then another...eventually I stopped and realized "whoa...pretty much every concert I've been to has some interesting story to tell." It really opened my eyes to the fact that there is a story behind every one of them...some funny things, some weird things, some interesting things, and so on. Gee, I thought, maybe it would be fun for me to share these stories with all of my readers? I also realized that it would be a great way for me to chronicle all of these memories and concerts to help preserve them before I forget about them! I decided to write about them in random order instead of chronologically; I figured this would make the posts less predictable and keep it interesting for me and for you, my readers.

I've already posted these three posts in the series:

...and I plan on completing posts for every single one of the shows I've seen. I do hope that they have been and will continue to be enjoyable, interesting, and as fun for you read as they've been for me to write. And as always, please feel free to share your own memories and feedback here in the comments section as well as on my Facebook and Twitter of the other things I'm hoping for with this series is to spur discussions and perhaps help you remember some of your own concert memories. I hope you'll stay with me as I tell these stories!  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: When the World Came to the Isle of Wight, Volume 1: Stealing Dylan From Woodstock

When it comes to 1960s music festivals, there are three that are iconic and forever ingrained in the collective memory: Monterey Pop in June 1967, which was the coming-out party for the 60s counterculture during the Summer of Love; Woodstock in August 1969, "three days of peace, love, and music" that featured some of the biggest names in rock music and the largest gathering of hippies, music fans, and countercultural figures on American soil (at the time); and Altamont in December 1969, a poorly organized, chaotic, and violent festival headlined by the Rolling Stones which culminated in the stabbing death of a drug-crazed fan, all captured on film and signifying for many the death of the 1960s dream. There were, of course, many other rock festivals toward the latter part of the 1960s and beyond, but two of the most significant of them all have flown under the radar for the past forty-five years: the 2nd and 3rd Isle of Wight Festivals in August 1969 and 1970, respectively. There has been a lot of mythology and misinformation surrounding the festivals over the intervening years...luckily, for the first time one of the men who was at the forefront of organizing these legendary gatherings is finally telling the real story behind them. When the World Came to the Isle of Wight is a two-volume set, and Volume 1: Stealing Bob Dylan From Woodstock will be out in June 2015 and is the subject of this review.

***special thanks to Guy at Medina Publishing for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

The Isle of Wight is a diamond-shaped island immediately off the south coast of England in the English Channel, a short ferry ride across the Solent from Portsmouth. As a county within England, it's home to ~130,000 people and has historically been a vacation and retirement destination for the affluent and well-connected. However, thanks to the big dreams and hard work of a family transplanted from Derbyshire, for a brief moment in the late 1960s the island became a mecca for rock music fans from around the world. Hailing from a multi-generational family of coal miners in the Midlands, the Foulk family made their way to the Isle of Wight and settled there. While the four brothers and their sister were of the right age to be part of the 1960s generation, as author Ray Foulk puts it, on the island they were fairly insulated from the wider youth counterculture and would do some major catching up, especially as they eventually planned their festivals. The three brothers central to the story, Ray, Ronnie, and Bill were all young middle-class businessmen in when the idea of promoting a music festival on the island was first thought up in the late 1960s. Using their business sense, some fortuitous connections, and their own hard work and industriousness they staged the first Isle of Wight Festival in August 1968 with Jefferson Airplane headlining. It was a one-day affair and drew a respectable ~25,000 concertgoers while going off fairly smoothly. The brothers (as well as their other brother, sister, and mother...truly a family affair!) were successful in raising local funding and advertising, befriending a local farmer who offered use of his land and saving money by using Ray's connections and career as a printer to make their own tickets and posters. While they lost money on the endeavor, they gained valuable insight into what to do (and what not to do), and the idea was planted to stage another festival the following year. However, this second one needed to be bigger and better in order to draw a larger crowd and gain more exposure. They intended to achieve this by making the whole experience grander: spreading the festival over the three-day August Bank Holiday weekend and booking bigger groups as a draw to get fans to come across the water to the island. The first major headliner they booked was The Who; other big acts like the Moody Blues, Free, and Joe Cocker were added to the bill, as were many smaller bands who filled out the bill across the weekend. However, with the Who headlining the Saturday an even bigger name was needed to headline Sunday night and close the festival. While the Beatles or Rolling Stones would have been obvious choices, the Foulks didn't think they had a shot at either one of them and neither would have made sense in any event: the Beatles hadn't performed live since 1966 (apart from the rooftop concert in January of '69) and the Stones were just getting back onto the road in the wake of Brian Jones' death in July 1969 (their legendary American tour of 1969 would start two months later in October of '69). On a lark, one of the Foulk brothers (who were operating their promotion company under the name of Fiery Creations) suggested Bob Dylan. This was an interesting and ambitious idea for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that Dylan had been a recluse since his motorcycle accident in July 1966 and had only made a couple of cameo live appearances at benefit concerts since. Figuring that they had nothing to lose, the Foulks made tentative overtures to Dylan's camp. When they weren't rejected outright, they kept the dialogue open and eventually warmed Dylan to the idea of playing there. Much of it had to do with the Isle being the former home of Tennyson, whom Dylan greatly admired and whose Farringford House remained a shrine to the poet's devotees. The negotiations went back and forth for several weeks and involved a lot of work on the part of Fiery Creations until Dylan finally accepted. Then came to daunting task of raising the required funding, as requested by Dylan's managers Bert Block and Albert Grossman, in time for the festival. Though it wasn't all smooth sailing, a combination of incredibly hard work and several lucky breaks led to the money being raised.  A suitably larger festival site was secured and set up, a house and support staff were rented for Bob and his wife Sara, and the festival was able to stay on schedule and open on time.

Some 150,000 people swarmed the Isle of Wight from the UK, America, Australia, and Europe for the three day festival that followed hot on the heels of the more famous Woodstock Festival of two weeks prior. In fact, the histories of these two festivals are more entwined than is known...certainly more than I knew, at least. Even though the Woodstock festival took place some seventy miles away in Bethel, New York, promoter Michael Lang made a deliberate effort to name the event Woodstock for two reasons: he wanted to use the town's name and notoriety as Dylan's hideaway to attract attention to his festival, and he hoped to entice Dylan out of seclusion to return to the stage at the event. However, it served to have the opposite effect, irritating Dylan to the point that there was no way he would consider appearing. Much of this was down to the fans who made the pilgrimage to Woodstock and harassed Dylan and his family at their home by stalking them and hiding out on their property. Thus, the escape to England to play the Isle of Wight held additional appeal to Bob and Sara. On the whole, the festival went off without a hitch and the atmosphere was enhanced by several giants of the rock scene who were in attendance, from Keith Richards and Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones to Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton of Cream, and most notably three of the Beatles: John, George, and Ringo (Linda McCartney had given birth to Paul's daughter Mary days before and so they didn't attend). All three Beatles and their wives were Dylan's constant companions during the weekend with George acting as unofficial host. George and Dylan had gotten to know each other the previous November in the aftermath of the White Album sessions and would continue their friendship until George's death in 2001. Ringo was a friend as well, whereas Bob's relationship with Lennon was always a bit more complex. Both admired each others talents and had known each other for years, but John was alternately in awe of and paranoid of Bob. However, even though the Beatles didn't perform at the festival, their presence at the event loomed large and gave a stamp of credibility to the entire affair.

From the opening ceremony on Friday night to the final note of Dylan's set late Sunday evening, the entire festival went off, for the most part, without issue. There were issues with inadequate restroom facilities, food vendors prices gouging festival goers, and the noise levels bothering a farmer and his wife whose house immediately butted against the backstage area, but overall it ran smoothly. There were only two big crises, both of which happened behind the scenes: the Who's helicopter made a harrowing landing in the backstage area when the updraft from the rotors blew the plywood boards that acted as a platform all about (luckily no one was hurt although one struck the tail rotor and almost incapacitated the chopper), and the biggest crisis of the night: the two-hour delay preceding the Band's set. One of Dylan's stipulations when he agreed to appear at the festival was that his backing group, The Band, would have a set of their own immediately preceding his own. His record company also insisted on recording Dylan and the Band's show for a possible live album. The two-hour delay was due to technical issues in setting up the additional recording equipment, but it agitated Dylan enough that the Foulks were nervous it might all fall apart at the last moment. However, as soon as the Band finally began their set, Dylan calmed down and he went on to deliver one of the most unique sets of his career. Now singing in the affected country croon he'd adopted on his most recent album, 1969's Nashville Skyline, as opposed to his famous nasal whine, he eschewed almost all of his most popular songs and instead focused on the pastoral songs culled from Skyline and his 1967 album John Wesley Harding. By this point in his life, Dylan was married with five children and enjoyed the quiet domesticity of his home life; this is reflected in his albums during his reclusive period as well as in his set list at the Isle of Wight. Playing for around an hour, his set was rapturously received by those in the crowd although the press reaction was mixed, with history generally agreeing with those who savaged his performance. Indeed, Dylan was so dispirited by the reviews of his performance when he got back home to New York a few days later that he didn't play another concert, save for an appearance at George Harrison's 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, until 1974.

In the meantime, the Foulks were left in the afterglow of the successful festival while facing the daunting tasks of cleaning up the festival site and starting their planning to do it all again next year. While they didn't make much money from the festival, they made enough to pay off the bills they accrued in its planning and execution and learned a lot about what they could do better in 1970. The great thing about this book is how Ray Foulk, who was at the center of the whole enterprise, describes all of the behind the scenes planning, negotiating, and maneuvering that was required to pull the whole thing off. As he makes plainly clear, he and his brothers were not hippies or tuned-in rock impresarios; they were simply young businessmen who happened to also be music fans who thought it would be cool to stage a festival on their little island. The Foulks wore suits and ties to work each day, didn't do drugs, and tried to run their business and turn a profit, the last of which damaged their credibility in the eyes of more left-leaning music fans and critics. Indeed, Ray mentions how they were criticized for not putting on a "free festival" (a criticism that would be even louder the following year) while making a great point that not only did somebody need to pay for the concessions, restrooms, and festival site infrastructure, but the artists themselves weren't playing for free! Indeed, as the highest-paid performer on the bill, Dylan took a lot of flak in the press for how much he was paid (his total, including travel and lodging expenses, amounted to some £80,000), with one tabloid referencing his "million-dollar" payday. Foulk is also refreshingly candid about many of the people he worked with in those days. Two of them in particular come instantly to mind: compere Rikki Farr, whose fast-talking and hip manner (not to mention his being the son of famous boxer Tommy Farr) was both an asset and a liability, and Judy Lewis, hired as housekeeper and cook for the Dylans at their rented house. While Lewis was good at her job, she also tried to get a bit too close to her famous guests and began inserting herself into situations that she was not intended to be involved in when she was hired...this eventually led to her dismissal. Foulk is by no means vicious in his fact, he's exceedingly fair and in some spots, probably too kind given some of the situations that resulted from these actions (I'm thinking in particular of the poor press coverage they got after Farr insulted several reporters from the stage prior to Dylan's set). The goal with these two books is to set the record straight and tell the real story of how three brothers, with help from their family and friends, were able to stage two of the biggest music festivals in history. Stealing Dylan from Woodstock was a stunning achievement but it also meant that they had to do something even bigger and better the following year. As for how they topped that, the final chapter is a lead-in to the forthcoming second volume discussing the biggest live act of 1969-70 (and noted Dylan devotee) Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, the 1970 festival would be Hendrix' final UK appearance as he would tragically die in London a few weeks later.

While the book may seem like it's too specific and too England-centric for a non-Brit (such as myself) to enjoy, I don't feel this is the case. True, I'm a student and fan of the era and its music and also a lifelong Anglophile, but I feel that anyone who is a fan of those times will enjoy the book. In particular, Dylan fans should read this because of the interesting way Ray Foulk places the event in the context of Dylan's career. The Isle of Wight Festival in 1969 was his only headlining concert appearance in the span between July 1966 and 1974 and found Dylan at a point in his life where he was eschewing social commentary in his songs, shunning fame, and embracing being a husband and father. As such, his set at the festival remains unique in his history and the book manages to capture the spirit of the times and of Dylan's life and career at that very moment. Beyond merely being a book about a festival, Foulk does a masterful job in telling the true story of what it took to get Dylan on the bill and what it all meant for all involved. The text is accompanied by photographs of the various artists on stage and in attendance as well as many fascinating behind the scenes pictures. There are candid shots of Dylan, the Beatles, and other various famous faces in attendance. Scans of the original tickets, posters, and promotional materials prepared for Dylan in order to entice him to accept their invitation are included and do a nice job showing the amount of care and detail that went into the promotion of the festival...truly artifacts from a time long gone. The biggest (and really, only) complaint I have with the book are the numerous typos sprinkled throughout the text, as well as a couple of miscaptioned photos. These are minor, however, and don't detract from the impact or enjoyment of the book. It's clear that the authors did a lot of research to fill in the gaps of Ray Foulk's own story as evidenced by the numerous footnotes throughout the book as well as lengthy list of cited source material at the end of the book.

(Links to the rest of the Who's set at the festival can be found on YouTube in the above videos)

Beyond placing the event in the proper context of its time in the history of popular music and Bob Dylan's career and telling the true story of the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, the biggest impact Stealing Dylan From Woodstock had on me was that it did the impossible: it made me finally become a Dylan fan. I've long respected and acknowledged his influence but I've always maintained the position that the best versions of his songs were covers by other artists. I had heard many of his songs and even enjoyed several of them but I just couldn't get into his music, or rather I should say that I never put in any real effort to do so. However, over the course of reading this book I decided to make a concerted effort to listen to his music and to my shock and surprise, I found that I really loved it! So even if the book was no good, I would forever be indebted to Stealing Dylan for at least opening me up to a whole new world of music from one of the great artists of our times. Thankfully, as I've written above that isn't the case: this is a great book and I commend and thank Ray Foulk for telling his story and doing it as well as he did. The only difficult thing now is waiting for Volume 2 to be published...


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Concert Memories: Dream Theater at Harborlights Pavilion, Boston MA August 2, 2009

(As you can see I refuse to call it Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, which is what it's now called ...I hate corporate naming of venues!)

In 2009, I ticked another name off of my concert bucket list when I finally saw Dream Theater live in concert. I've been a fan since the late 1990s when their landmark album Metropolis 2: Scenes From a Memory was released, although I didn't really get into their music until a few years after that. Having formed at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the mid-1980s, the band has always had a special affection for the city and it's always been a main stop on their tours through the years. My brother Alex was able to see them in 2007 when they were touring in support of their Systematic Chaos album. I was living in South Carolina at the time working on my postdoctorate fellowship so I missed out on seeing them (I believe the closest they came to SC on that tour was either Charlotte or Atlanta) so when they toured a couple of years later supporting their Black Clouds & Silver Linings album, I was living back home in New England and jumped at the chance. We bought three tickets: one for me, one for my brother, and one for our friend Marc who was also a DT fan and had seen them many times dating back to 2000. This tour was going to be a bit different than the way they usually did them, though.  DT was famous for playing marathon sets of three to four hours with no opening acts, billing each show as "An Evening With Dream Theater." However, starting with this 2009 jaunt they began touring under the heading of "Progressive Nation" and including other progressive rock bands as openers. That was fine with me when I saw the bill, as besides Big Elf (who I had heard of, but never actually heard) they would also have Zappa Plays Zappa opening. I've been a massive, massive fan of Frank Zappa from when I'd started high school back in the early 1990s, so the chance to see his talented son Dweezil and a band made up of several of Frank's band alumni playing his music was a real thrill. With all of that out of the way, now let's get to the story of the day when it all came together...

August 2nd was a typical summer day in New England: hot, oppressively humid, and overcast. At the time, my brother was in law school and living on Beacon Hill in Boston while my wife and I were living on the New Hampshire seacoast about an hour away. On the day of the concert I made the drive down into the city with the idea of parking in Alex's neighborhood; I was planning on staying over at his place and wanted my car close by. However, as anyone who has ever been to Beacon Hill can tell you, its neighborhoods are a maze of narrow streets, many of them cobblestoned and one-way, and as with everywhere in Boston parking is at a premium. I'd driven to his place several times before and never had too much of a problem parking, but this time there was absolutely no way I was going to find a spot. I ended up double parking a block from his place with my car left running and sprinted up the steep hill to his apartment with my overnight bag slung on my shoulder. I pressed the intercom button and yelled for them to come down and get in my car. The original plan (had I been able to park where I'd intended) was for the three of us to walk somewhere to eat dinner and then take the T over to the Pavilion for the concert. However, now I needed to find somewhere else to park my car. They followed me running to my car, which miraculously hadn't been ticketed or towed and was still there. I decided I'd park it overnight in the parking garage under Boston Common so we drove there and left the car. Since we were already halfway across the city, we decided to find somewhere to eat along the way and just walk to the seaport district where the Pavilion was afterward. We did all of this during the hottest part of the afternoon so by the time we got to the venue an hour before showtime, we were absolutely drenched in sweat and very, very hot. Thankfully all of the seating there is underneath a huge canvas covering which offered some much-appreciated shade and respite from the heat. We got to our seats, which were about fifty feet from the stage and slightly to the right with an excellent view of the stage. After grabbing some cold drinks, we sat and chatted until it was time for the show to begin. At this point the sun was still up and it was daylight, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water (since the Pavilion is right on the harbor) which helped to cool us down nicely.

Big Elf was up first and they struck a very psychedelic, Gothic figure on stage. The lead singer wore a long jacket and top hat and faced the crowd standing in between two Hammond organs that were on either side of him and tilted toward him. He played one with each hand while he sang and their sound was very heavy and psychedelic. I can't say they made me into a fan, but I really enjoyed their set and it was certainly unique! Zappa Plays Zappa was on next and they began by playing an instrumental ("The Purple Lagoon") when suddenly a guy in the crowd stood up and started shouting and heckling them. Eventually he ran up to the front of the stage and yelled some more before he climbed up on to the stage and ran toward a microphone. We were all looking at each other in confusion, wondering what the hell was going on and whether this fellow was going to cause some trouble when he turned to the crowd and started singing "Zomby Woof!" He sounded just like Ricky Lancelotti, who sang the vocal on the record (and who had a VERY weird voice) when we realized he was part of the band! Indeed, after the song ended Dweezil introduced him and the rest of the band before they continued on with the rest of their set, which was fantastic and included several of my favorite FZ songs like "Zomby Woof," "Montana," "Inca Roads," and "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama."  By the time they left the stage it was just about dark and we waited for the main attraction...

Zappa Plays Zappa set list:

The Purple Lagoon
Zomby Woof
Village of the Sun
Echidna's Arf (Of You)
Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?
My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama
Inca Roads
Peaches en Regalia
Bamboozled by Love
More Trouble Every Day
Willie the Pimp

After all of ZPZ's gear was torn down and Dream Theater's gear was set up, the lights went down and the crowd began to cheer as DT came onto the stage to begin their set. Their first song, "A Nightmare to Remember," exploded from the stage as the intense light show and backing projections bathed all of us in a brilliant glow. The first thing that struck me as soon as the show started, however, was that it was freaking LOUD! Now, I've been to loads of concerts...I'm also a musician myself and as you all know, I'm a hugely obsessive music fan who listens to music at every possible moment throughout the day. That being said, I try to take care of my hearing and I always try to protect my ears by bringing earplugs with me to every concert as a precaution. However, given the chaos of parking and getting to the venue, I had left my earplugs in the car! I'd foolishly figured that since it was an outdoor show that the sound wouldn't be as loud as it usually is at an indoor. Needless to say I was very wrong! The sound was actually borderline painful and beyond that, it was poorly mixed; it was much too trebly and the nuances of the music were lost in a wash of cymbals and ringing high, especially from the guitar and keyboards. I spent most of the show with my fingers in my ears in order to block out as much of the sound as I could...this also helped to filter out the tinniness of the mix and actually made the music sound better. The set list is below.

Dream Theater set list:

A Nightmare to Remember
A Rite of Passage
Hollow Years
Prophets of War
The Dance of Eternity
One Last Time
Solitary Shell
In the Name of God

The Count of Tuscany

I was most excited to hear the more seldomly played older songs like "The Dance of Eternity/One Last Time" (from Scenes From a Memory) and "Solitary Shell" (from Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence). The most welcome surprise for me was "Hollow Years," a song that I not only love, but that they ended up playing in a very unique ten-plus minute version at this concert. The newer songs were very good, especially the first and last songs, each of which are 15-20 minute epics. However, having to endure one of my least favorite DT songs, "Prophets of War," in the middle of the set was a real momentum killer. I also remember being a bit disappointed at the brevity of the set. It was only nine songs and a little under two hours, which normally would be more than enough from any other band, but having listened to all of Dream Theater's live albums for years I was used to hearing three hours (or more) of them onstage. Perhaps what was most unsatisfying to me was the fact that this show was in support of what was their weakest album (in my view) to date and 30% of the set was drawn from it. Add in another song being one of my least favorites and in reality 40% of the set was stuff I really didn't care to hear all that much. It was still a really good concert and I'm glad I went, but it was a bit disappointing.

After the show ended, we realized we were quite a ways away from Alex's apartment and it was pretty late. The T is notorious for stopping service shortly after midnight and we were right around that hour so we decided to hoof it back instead.  Thankfully it had cooled off a bit and was fairly pleasant out, although it was still very humid. After stopping at a 7-11 a few blocks from the venue to get a snack and a cold drink, we walked all the way across the city back to Beacon Hill. By now it was close to past midnight and we passed through several neighborhoods where there was literally no one around. Boston is not New York City but it's usually not totally dead at midnight, especially given the number of universities, hospitals, and young professionals that call it home. But our walk back to Beacon Hill was unlike anything I've experienced before or since. There was a stretch in the middle of our journey where the streets and neighborhoods were completely empty: no people, no cars, no traffic, no activity, nothing. These were not bad parts of the city, either (do you really think we'd have been walking home if they were?)...just several random areas where everyone apparently decided to make an early night of it. At one point we were literally walking down the middle of the street in total disbelief that we were actually doing this in Boston, one of the worst cities when it comes to traffic congestion. Finally we got back to Alex's apartment where Marc decided to drive back home to New Hampshire. We said goodnight to him and then walked up the three flights to my brother's place.After putting the air conditioning on (it was still humid outside and he lived on the top floor so it was stuffy), we sat down with some cold drinks to reflect on the concert and to unwind before catching some sleep. The next morning we walked somewhere to have breakfast before I said goodbye, walked to the Common and my car, and drove home. And you know what? My ears were still feeling the effects of the horrible sound mix and would continue to for another day! Before I'd gone to bed the previous night, my ears had a little bit of ringing which didn't surprise me given how loud the concert amount of plugging my ears with my fingers had been able to completely lessen the effect of the volume. However, when I woke up that morning, I had a constant "whooshing" in my ear; think of a steady wind down the end of a tunnel or a white noise generator, only it's RIGHT INSIDE YOUR EARS. It didn't hurt but it was very unpleasant and was the first (and so far, thankfully, last) time I've ever experienced this phenomenon. Overall, it wasn't the best concert I'd ever been to but it wasn't anywhere near the worst and I still enjoyed it. I'm fortunate that I went as a year later, Mike Portnoy (one of my favorite drummers ever and a co-founder of the band) quit and was replaced by Boston's own Mike Mangini. While I've enjoyed DT's most recent two albums in the wake of Mike's departure, they're the weakest albums of their career and the band are showing signs (at least to me) of being a nearly spent force. I'm definitely glad I saw them when I did, though, and also thankful that I was able to see Zappa Plays Zappa at the same time...I just know that my ears couldn't take such an awful sound mix again!

(As a final aside, I have a recording of the entire Dream Theater performance from this show which sounds better than when I was actually there...if I ever want to relive the experience, I can at least listen to it without damaging my ears, for which I'm very thankful!)

    Monday, May 11, 2015

    UPCOMING CONCERT: Ride at the Paradise, Boston, MA October 3, 2015

    I'll forever be indebted to my longtime friend Carsten for introducing me to the music of Ride in the late 1990s/early 2000s when we were both graduate students. We had (and still have) a lot of similar musical tastes and one day he asked if I'd ever heard of this band from Oxford, England called Ride? I hadn't so he let me borrow a couple of their CDs and that was it..I was an instant fan. I ended up buying all of their albums shortly after, although in my research to learn more about them I was upset to read that they'd broken up five years earlier. "Oh, well," I thought, "just another band I got into a little bit too late to ever get the chance to see live." Fast forward to 2014 and the exciting news that Ride would be reforming and playing some concerts, including in the USA! My enthusiasm was dampened a bit when I noticed they wouldn't be coming to Boston and while normally I'd have no problem traveling to the next nearest major city (which in my case would be New York City) to see them, I just figured it wasn't meant to be. However, two weeks ago they announced that they were tacking an east coast leg on to the of their tour and lo and behold, the final show will be in Boston!  

    I sent a text off to Carsten and he told me he'd heard about, too, and said he was buying tickets and did he want me to get one for me? How could I say no to an offer like that?  Along with our longtime mutual friend Jon, we decided to go for it. Carsten got the tickets last week right after they went on sale, and so we'll be finally getting our chance to see Ride! I'm thrilled for a number of reasons, including: 1) finally getting to see Ride in concert; 2) getting to catch up with two great friends who I haven't seen for a couple of years; 3) the chance to get back home to Boston; and 4) checking another of my favorite bands off my "must-see" bucket list. They're all important to me, including that last one because so many of the bands I love are from the UK and in recent years, their modus operandi seems to be to not play (m)any shows in the US other than the occasional festival (*cough cough* Blur *cough cough*). To see Ride in a small club (I've seen many shows at the Paradise over the years) will be a real treat.

    An in-depth band profile on Ride will be forthcoming; they've always been on my list of bands to write about, but they've moved up in the queue now! For now, I'm just really looking forward to the entire experience in October.

    Are any of you reading this fans of Ride? Have you ever seen them live? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments below...thanks!

    Friday, May 8, 2015

    BOOK REVIEW: Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones

    One of the most enigmatic and tragic figures of the 1960s rock music scene is Brian Jones. A founding member of the Rolling Stones, if not the founder, as well as a brilliant multi-instrumentalist, his short life and career is the stuff of legend, myth, and misinformation. The charter member of the modern-era 27 Club, he's more remembered for his problems with drugs, his steep and sudden musical decline, and his mysterious death. These perceptions of him have been fostered and abetted by numerous people over the decades, perhaps none more so than the two bandmates with whom he first plotted the course of the band and who later froze him out. Indeed, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards formed one of the most successful songwriting teams of the rock era and, along with former manager Andrew Oldham, subsequently marginalized, subdued, and in many ways psychologically destroyed Brian Jones. Most Stones history of the nearly fifty years since Brian's death portray him as a tragic casualty of the rock lifestyle, but in Paul Trynka's new book it's laid out that the truth is far more interesting...and different.

    ***special thanks to Andrea at Viking Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

    From reading various accounts of Rolling Stones history over the years, including memoirs by Richards and Oldham, one would think that Brian Jones was little more than a drug addled musical dilettante who fathered numerous illegitimate children whom he didn't support. Indeed, that was pretty much how I had always viewed him; the stories of him nodding off in a drug-induced stupor during recording sessions, of smacking around his girlfriend-of-the-moment, of making life so intolerable for the other Stones that they had to ditch him to save their own careers...these were all things I'd read and heard over the years and which formed my opinion of Jones. Are any of them true? Yes, actually most of them are. However, they didn't just happen in a vacuum and as is usual with these sorts of complex people, there is typically a fair amount of good that counterbalances the bad. This is where author Paul Trynka seems intent on taking Brian's story.  Rigorously researched and drawing upon new interviews with many people who were around the Stones and the London rock scene in the 1960s, Trynka sets out with this book to tell the definitive, true story of Brian's life and also to reestablish his status as a pioneer of British blues, R&B, and rock music. 

    Trynka begins with Brian's birth and upbringing, describing in excruciatingly sad detail the nearly loveless and emotionally bereft household he was brought up in from his birth in 1942. Brian's parents, Lewis and Louisa, were successful in their careers and welcomed their eldest child (and only son) into this very stern and cold house. While they were both musical (Louisa was a piano teacher), according to every account from Brian's childhood friends the atmosphere in the house was very unaffectionate.  A sister born when Brian was very young died of leukemia and was a secret the boy was instructed to never divulge to anyone outside of the house. Another sister, Barbara, was born a few years later although she and Brian were never particularly close. By all accounts, Brian was a shy, sensitive, intelligent student who excelled at school and was a star athlete until his chronic asthma began to flare up enough that it affected his physical abilities. As one of his classmates later recounted, beyond resenting the his asthma, Brian resented himself for suffering from it and never got over it. Brian's interest in music was first indulged when he began playing clarinet and saxophone at school and he heard his first jazz record. Eventually his parents bought him a guitar and once he was bitten by the blues, music was all that he lived for. Combined with a growing disrespect for authority figures and his developing prowess with girls, Brian became a profound disappointment to his austere parents and the estrangement that would last the rest of his life began in earnest. It was also around this time he began fathering a series of illegitimate children and causing heartbreak in the lives of each of the women who he'd eventually abandon.  

    Deciding to risk it all by moving to London and plying his trade, Brian soon made a name for himself as one of the most knowledgeable and talented blues and R&B guitarists on the burgeoning London scene. In particular, his ability to play authentically gritty slide guitar caught the attention of many, including a couple of young schoolboys from Dartford named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  Brian eventually set out to put a band together and recruited Ian "Stu" Stewart, Mick and Keith, bass player Bill Wyman (who replaced the original bassist); after an unsuccessful first attempt at poaching him, he successfully persuaded Charlie Watts to join on drums and the Rollin' Stones (as Brian originally named them) were born. While the band collectively worked toward their goals, it was Brian who was the undisputed leader during these early days of 1962-1963. He formed the band, named it, decided on what material they would play, and he booked the gigs. However, the beginning of the end came with the arrival of the Stones' first co-manager, Andrew Oldham. A fast-talking teenager who had recently worked with the Beatles and unsuccessful co-managed the Who before they were famous, Oldham fixated on Jagger as the star and also (rightly) realized the band needed to pen original songs in order to sustain their success as he didn't think covers would earn them much money or respect. Encouraging the Jagger/Richards partnership to begin writing songs, Oldham formed a troika with Mick and Keith that began the slow process of isolating and freezing Brian out out the band. According to Trynka, as early as 1965 Brian could sense what was happening and planned an escape route. However, like most things in his life, he had big ideas and talked a good game but never followed through on anything. Eventually he sank deeper into drug addiction and was relentlessly (and honestly, unfairly) hounded by the police, led by the notorious Sgt. Norman Pilcher who became famous for planting drugs and tipping off tabloids in advance of his high profile busts. While Jagger, Richards, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Donovan were all notches in Pilcher's belt, Brian Jones was public enemy #1 because of how blatantly he flouted authority; he would thus become the target for a staggering number of repeated plants and busts. Combined with some downright nasty treatment from the Stones (to be fair, Wyman saw what was going on and didn't participate, while Charlie Watts saw it but remained quiet) and Oldham, led to Brian becoming a shell of himself. By early 1969 he'd been sacked from the band and on July 2nd, 1969 he was found dead in his swimming pool at the age of 27.

    Trynka's book does an excellent job of providing a detailed history of the Rolling Stones' career in the 1960s through the prism of Brian's life and the pictures he paints of both aren't pretty. While it's well known that the band were embattled with the press and the establishment, the darker internal band issues are laid bare. It is surprising to realize just how close to the brink of dissolution, both financially and artistically, the Stones were even as late as 1968 before they saved their career with Beggars Banquet. While Brian's character faults (and there were many) are detailed and make understandable the exasperation of those around him, it was also obvious to multiple people involved in and around the band how downright cruel and nasty Mick, Keith, and Oldham were to him. From inviting him to sessions and telling him the wrong time so that he would show up when no one was at the studio, to wiping his parts off of songs or not plugging his amp and microphone in, they did everything they could to make him unwelcome and marginalized within the band.  Combined with external pressures and his mental issues, it reached a point where Brian stopped playing guitar altogether by 1966 or so.  While this actually helped to enhance much of the Stones' best music (for instance, his sitar part on "Paint It Black," his marimba part on "Under My Thumb," and his recorder part on "Ruby Tuesday") eventually it reached the point where he would just come to the studio and nod off or wander around while the rest of the band went about their business.  By the time of the last Stones album he contributed to, 1969's masterpiece Let It Bleed, he was begging to play bongos, harmonica, anything while Mick famously and coldly told him to "just go home, Brian."  Keith ran off with Brian's girlfriend Anita Pallenberg in early 1967 on a trip they all took to Morocco and they, along with Mick, abandoned him there all alone with no money, among other indignities.  In reality, it is a testament to Brian's resolve and forgiving nature that he stuck it out in the band for another two years! Trynka details all of this, much of it via firsthand accounts from friends, producers, fellow musicians, and music journalists who were all around during this period. The resulting portrait depicts a very talented, sensitive, and flawed young man who drove those around him to madness yet took a physical, mental, and emotional battering from those closest to him which eventually wore him down and indirectly led to his death.

    Speaking of his death, Trynka tries to set the record straight once and for all with his final chapter. Rather than tackling the event head on, he systematically goes through each of the various theories that have sprung up over the years, one-by-one, and discusses their plausibility (or lack thereof), using facts old and new and good old fashioned common sense in order to include or exclude different scraps of information. His conclusion is that (***SPOILER ALERT***) Brian's death was simply a tragic accident. While there are some inconsistencies in the witnesses' stories, some shoddy police work and a woefully sloppy (in the figurative sense) autopsy, as well as lingering suspicions about Brian's driver Tom Keylock, all of the evidence points to it being an accident. Basically, Brian, who was known to nod off due to his overindulgence in Mandrax (a muscle relaxant) most likely had an unfortunate nodding-off spell while swimming in his pool that night. And while Keylock was indeed a sleazy character who was later found to have stolen many of Brian's possessions and sold them to collectors, he most likely had nothing to do with the death (and his subsequent "revelation" of a deathbed confession by Frank Thorogood, a builder who had been working at Brian's house, has been soundly debunked).  As a final reminder of the lack of warmth and love from his parents, it's mentioned how Lewis and Lousia inscribed Brian's headstone with "In Affectionate Memory;" even in death, his parents seemed incapable of expressing to him the love which he had so long craved. It makes for a depressing ending to a very sad life.

    During this concluding chapter and indeed throughout the entire book, Trynka goes to great lengths to almost plead with the reader than they shift the decades-long focus on Brian's death to his life and music instead. He does this by not only documenting several instances where Brian's pioneering musical achievements have been downplayed or forgotten (such as his introducing open tunings to Keith as early as 1962/63, his use and incorporation of unorthodox and ethnic instruments on the Stones' classic recordings between 1965-68, his introducing the blues to a mainstream audience) but how there were aspects of Brian's personality that were actually enjoyed by his friends. Indeed, for as insufferable as he truly could be, Brian did have a lot of friends and admirers...shockingly, all of them were from outside of the Rolling Stones. Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Alexis Korner, Ginger Baker, and others all spoke fondly of Brian and hung out with him regularly, whereas Mick, Keith, Stu, Andrew Oldham, and many others within the Stones camp have spent the years since his death doing whatever they can to all but write him completely out of their history. Trynka does a nice job trying to reclaim Brian's musical legacy and I would say that he succeeds in the main; personally, I had always thought of his as a flawed musician, talented but a dilettante. While he was indeed a dilettante in most aspects of his life (not just music), it didn't make him any less important to the Stones or 1960s rock music and I will admit that this book changed many of the preconceived notions I had about Brian. The author is clearly a fan of Brian's and that comes through loud and clear in his writing. While I won't say he's unbalanced, there are many instances where, in trying to present both sides of a situation he will give one or two sentences in Mick or Keith's defense (for example) and then devote an entire paragraph (or more) to Brian's defense. While it's not unbalanced per se, the bias is definitely in favor of Jones, although given that this is a book about him that's shouldn't be too surprising. Overall, this is an excellent book that not only gives a nice history of the Stones' career in the 1960s, but serves to set the record straight on Brian Jones and reclaim his legacy as the musical pioneer he truly was.

    MY RATING: 8/10

    Tuesday, May 5, 2015

    Unique Beatles Photographic Auction Coming Up This Week


    It was brought to my attention yesterday by Invaluable online auctions that there are several lots of some really interesting Beatles photographs that are coming up for sale. The online auctions start this week in the US on May 6 at 10pm EST (or May 7 at 12pm EDST in Australia) and are titled the “Unique Beatles Photographic Auction.” I thought this would be of interest for all of you hardcore Beatlemaniacs and collectors out there, so if you're interested keep reading!

    Among the lots of photos include:

    Lot 6: The Beatles on their way to Washington by train during their US 1964 tour
    Lot 9: Images of The Beatles during a press conference on their way to Washington by train during their US 1964 tour
    Lot 40: The Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show circa 1964

    The majority of the photos which were taken by Eve Bowen come from one session on the train journey to Washington, DC from New York City during the Beatles first ever U.S visit in February 1964. Most of the negatives were acquired as a group and several have been previously illustrated online with the consent of the vendor. What makes this opportunity so unique is that they come with copyright so the owner may use the image and reproduce them as they wish.  As you can see from the pictures in this post (which are from the actual lots), there are lots of nice photos here and many of them will be new and unseen for many Beatles fans.  What's nice about these is that they are mainly candid, behind-the-scenes moments that show a really human side to the band and what Beatlemania was like from the inside.

    It still amazes me that all these years later there are still new Beatles photographs being unearthed, and my guess is that there are countless more waiting (like these) to finally be seen someday.  You can check out the complete lots HERE...for all of you collectors, good luck!