Three Concert Film Jewels

When switching on my TV last evening to look for the next episode of the excellent PBS series “Soundbreaking,” I was thrilled to see they were showing “The Last Waltz” instead – quite appropriate, given it was the 40th anniversary of The Band’s epic performance. This inspired me to do a post on great concert movies.

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People who know me or have visited the blog are aware that I love going to rock concerts. Seeing my favorite artists perform live brings their music much closer to me than any album could ever do. While I’ve been to many great shows over the past three decades or so, unfortunately, there are way more acts than I can see. Of course, watching a concert movie instead cannot really make up for the thrill of being in the concert hall yourself, but I still enjoy it. Following are some of my favorite concert films.

The Last Waltz

As I watched this film again last night, I realized how truly outstanding it is. Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, organs, drums, clavinet, dobro, vocals), Garth Hudson (organ, accordion, synthesizers, soprano saxophone, clavinet), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, vocals) and Rick Danko (bass, fiddle, vocals) simply put on rock & roll craftsmanship at its best. Add to this that the movie was shot by film director icon Martin Scorsese, and it’s not a surprise why many critics have called The Last Waltz the greatest concert movie of all time.

The film captures what was billed The Band’s farewell concert performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving day in 1976 (Nov 25). Released in April 1978, the film also features guest appearances from such amazing other artists like Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood and of course, not to forget Band long-time collaborator, Bob Dylan.

The idea to turn The Band from a live to a studio act, similar to what The Beatles had decided in the mid-60s, came to Robertson in early 1976, after Richard Manuel had a serious boating accident. Robertson also thought about capturing the event on film and recalled he liked Mean Streets, the 1973 movie directed by Scorsese who had also worked as an assistant director and one of the editors of another legendary concert film –  Woodstock.

The Last Waltz has so much great music that is almost impossible to select my favorite moment. Clearly, one of the highlights is when all musicians perform Dylan’s I Shall Be Released.

The Concert for Bangladesh

This film is another jewel among rock concert movies. Directed by Saul Swimmer and released in March 1972, the film documents two benefit concerts organized by George Harrison and his good friend, sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar. The performances, which raised money for refugees of the 1971 revolution and armed conflict in Bangladesh, took place on August 1, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Similar to The Last Waltz, the show brought together an incredible array of rock artists, including Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, and Eric Clapton, among others. Even Bob Dylan showed up. While Harrison had reached out to him, it was unclear until the very last moment what the great rock poet would do, until perhaps in typical Dylan fashion he suddenly walked on stage!

The concert kicks off with traditional instrumental Hindustani classical music performed by Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod), Alla Rakha (tabla) and Kamala Chakravarty (tambura). In one of the film’s lighter moments, the audience enthusiastically applauds when the musicians pause after tuning their instruments, to which Shankar remarks: “Thank you, if you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more.”

The rock portion of the film captures amazing music from Harrison, The Beatles and some of his guests. Highlights include While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Something and My Sweet Lord, as well as Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy and Preston’s That’s the Way God Planned It. It doesn’t matter much that the musicians at times struggle a bit with lyrics and their instruments. If anything, this gives the performance a charming spontaneous character.

Here is a nice clip of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Rust Never Sleeps

This 1979 film is based on a live album with the same title from Neil Young and its longtime band Crazy Horse. The picture, directed by Young under the pseudonym Bernhard Shakey, captures a nearly two-hour show performed on October 22, 1978 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

While the film has received accolades for its terrific music, some critics have complained about grainy and underlit footage, as well as certain features that take away from the band’s great craftsmanship, such as the roadies with glowing eyes reminiscent of the Jawas in Star Wars, who can be seen in the beginning of the movie setting props on the stage and at times during the show. In my opinion, it’s a minor aspect of an otherwise outstanding concert film.

Rust Never Sleeps features some of Neil Young’s greatest songs, showcasing acoustic gems like Sugar Mountain, Comes a Time and My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), and grunge rockers, such as Like a Hurricane, Cinnamon Girl and Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).

This clip of Like a Hurricane nicely illustrates how the film combines quirky features and outstanding rock & roll.

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: Thanksgiving

As I was listening to Q104.3’s countdown of the greatest 1043 classic rock songs of all time, which they do each year around Thanksgiving, I thought it would be fun to take a twist on this recurring feature of the blog.

Following are some events in rock history that happened on Thanksgiving throughout the decades:

Thanksgiving 1966 (Nov 24): The Beatles go into the studio and devote an entire session to recording John Lennon’s gem Strawberry Fields Forever. It came after John, Paul, George and Ringo took a break following their decision to stop touring. The song was supposed to be included on the band’s next album, which would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Instead, it was released as a single in February 1967, together with Penny Lane. Both tunes were also included on the B-side (1967 singles) of Magical Mystery Tour, the soundtrack to the 1967 film of the same name.

Thanksgiving 1967 (Nov 23): The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, The Move, The Nice, The Outer Limits, The Eire Apparent and Amen Corner play their seventh night at the Sophia Gardens Pavilion in Cardiff, Wales, UK. The show was part of a 16-date tour these artists performed together.

Thanksgiving 1969 (Nov 27): The Rolling Stones play the first of four shows at New York City’s Madison Square Garden during their 1969 North American tour. Altogether, about 55,000 people saw the Stones over the four nights. It was the band’s first U.S. tour since July 1966 and the inaugural with Mick Taylor who had replaced Brian Jones in June that year. Shortly thereafter (July 3, 1969), Jones passed away under somewhat mysterious circumstances at the age of 27.

Thanksgiving 1974 (Nov 28): John Lennon joins Elton John on stage in a surprise guest appearance at Madison Square Garden. Previously, Lennon promised John he would join him, if Whatever Gets You Thru the Night, which featured John on piano and backing vocals, would hit the top of the charts – it did and was Lennon’s only solo No. 1 in the U.S. during his lifetime! In addition to the song, they played I Saw Her Standing There and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Only 10 days earlier, John had released a single with a cover version of Lucy, which featured Lennon on guitar and backing vocals under the pseudonym Dr. Winston O’Boogie. The Madison Square Garden performance with John would be Lennon’s last concert appearance. Following his death, John wrote a moving tribute song titled Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny).

Thanksgiving 1976 (Nov 25): The Last Waltz, the final concert of The Band, is held at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The epic show featured more than a dozen high-caliber special guests, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton, among others. Martin Scorsese filmed the event and together with The Band’s lead guitarist, Robbie Robertson, turned it into a documentary. Released in 1978, the film has been hailed by many critics as one of the best rock concert movies ever. But The Band’s drummer Levon Helm, in his 1993 autobiography, claimed that Scorsese and Robertson (the film’s producer) essentially portrayed the band as Robertson’s sidemen.

 

 

 

Rocking Your Thanksgiving with Q104.3’s Top 1,043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time

It’s almost here again -Q104.3 ‘s great Thanksgiving tradition to count down the 1,043 greatest classic rock songs of all time, as voted by the station’s listeners.

Q104.3, one of my favorite classic rock radio stations, has this great annual tradition for Thanksgiving, where they ask their listeners to submit their picks for their 10 favorite rock songs. Then they tabulate all the votes and voila – out comes a list with the 1,043 greatest classic rock songs of all time, ranked in the order of popularity. Q104.3 then plays the entire list from No. 1,043 all the way to No. 1.

1,043 rock songs mean many hours of great rock music. In order to play all these tunes, Q104.3 needs to start the countdown the day before Thanksgiving at 1:00 pm ET and go all the way to Sunday evening – a fantastic listening experience for any rock fan! It’s also a nice break from listening to the 50 or so songs they tend to play all the time – just like most other radio stations do!

As regular listeners know, Q104.3’s DJs are big fans of Led Zeppelin. They frequently play Zeppelin songs and one of their DJs, Carol Miller, has a recurring segment called Get the Led Out – not to be confused with the terrific American Led Zeppelin  cover band Let the Led Out.

Q104.3 has done the above list and countdown for many years. From what I understand, each year Stairway to Heaven has been No. 1. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a fan of Led Zeppelin, and there is no doubt Stairway is one of the greatest rock songs to this day. I’m also not suggesting the station’s voting system is somehow rigged. That being said, I think it would be nice if another song would get the top spot this year.

While I find it almost impossible to select the Top 10 songs, following are my picks for this year. And, yes, wouldn’t it be nice to stir up the pot a little?

  1. Carry On Wayward Son (Kansas)
  2. Tush (ZZ Top)
  3. Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)
  4. Midnight Rider (The Allman Brothers Band)
  5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles)
  6. Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who)
  7. Layla (Derek & The Dominoes)
  8. Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  9. Whiskey, Beer & Wine (Buddy Guy)
  10. Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)

You might say, ‘no Rolling Stones?!’ Where’s the Boss?? And how about Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen? I like all of them, and they would be great choices. But you only get to pick 10 songs, which is really hard!

Anyway, this is my list for this year. If you like to submit your own choices, you can do so here. Happy voting but most of all, happy listening!

 

 

 

 

 

Sting Comes Roaring Back

Sting’s first new pop rock album in 13 years proves he still got the magic touch.

After the rapid sinking of his musical The Last Ship and two albums with traditional English renaissance and Christmas songs, many people including myself were wondering whether the “old” Sting would ever return. Well, he just did! And to me it very much feels like 1991 again when Sting released The Soul Cages, his third studio album.

I had a pretty good feeling about 57th & 9th from the get-go when I listened for the first time to I Can’t Stop Thinking About You, the album’s first single released on September 1st. It proves Sting still has a great ear for catchy pop rock tunes. Not surprisingly, the song made it all the way to No. 3 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart. I also immediately liked Petrol Head, the third single that came out earlier this month, an upbeat rocker with a refreshing dose of rawness to it.

Another standout on the album is 50,000, a eulogy for rock stars. According to an interview Sting gave to Rolling Stone in July, he wrote the song during the week of Prince’s death.Undoubtedly, 2016 has been a rough year in music, which in addition to Prince saw David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Keith Emerson pass away, among many others. Two other tunes I like to call out are Down, Down, Down and One Fine Day. Both could have appeared on Soul Cages, one of my favorite Sting albums.

57th & 9th was produced by Martin Kierszenbaum, who has produced for Lady Gaga and Madonna, among others. Kierszenbaum also plays organ, piano, mellotron and keyboards on the album. The title is named after the intersection in New York City  Sting crossed every day on his way to the studio where much of the music was recorded.

Sting co-wrote the majority of songs with Dominic Miller, Lyle Workman and Josh Freese. Miller, a British guitarist, has worked with Sting for more than 20 years. Workman is an American session musician and producer, who played with Sting during his 2006 Broken Music tour and at Live 8. Freese is an American multi-instrumentalist who among others played drums for Guns N’ Roses from 1997 to 2000.

I’ve always admired Sting, both for his musical craftsmanship and his songwriting. I also have a lot of respect for artists who step away from their formula that brought them success to explore something new. Sting has certainly done that and probably gained some inspiration from it. Maybe that’s what it took to come back and make another great pop rock album.

 

What I’ve been listening to: The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East

Like many other folks in the U.S., I haven’t been exactly cheerful over the past few days. Music including this 1971 classic can be great to overcome the post-election blues.

I certainly don’t want to trivialize the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, which does concern me a great deal. Turning to the blues in this situation may also seem to be ironical. But I find there is something in this great music that puts me at ease, providing a welcome distraction from all the post-election media coverage and analysis.

At Fillmore East is the third album by The Allman Brothers Band. I agree with critics who consider it to be one of the best live albums in rock music. It captures material from three concerts the band performed at Fillmore East, a legendary late 60s/early 70s music venue in New York City, which also featured other icons like Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin.

Even though the Allman Brothers had already released two excellent studio albums, their eponymous debut (1969) and the follow-up Idlewild South (1970), it was At Fillmore East that gave them their commercial breakthrough. It’s really not a surprise, since the band was such an amazing live act.

At Fillmore East showcases the Allman Brothers’ outstanding musical craftsmanship. It features long jams mixing blues and rock with country and jazz elements. Of the seven songs on the original release only two are Allman Brothers compositions: Dickey Betts’ In Memory of Elizabeth Reed from Idlewild South, and Gregg Allman’s Whipping Post. Both are among the album’s highlights blending amazing dual lead guitar parts by Duane Allman and Dickey Betts with the treffic sound of Gregg Allman’s Hammond.

Statesboro Blues nicely showcases Duane’s slide guitar work. Another standout is Stormy Monday. The tune starts off as a slow blues, picks up to a jazz grove driven by Gregg’s organ and then slows down again to a blues tune. It’s just brilliant!

Released July 1971, At Fillmore East reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and received RIAA Gold certification in October that year. Eventually, it was certified platinum in August 1992. The album is No. 49 on Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was one of the 50 recordings the Library of Congress selected in 2004 to be added to the National Recording Registry.

At Fillmore East is the last album the band released when all of its original members were still alive: Duane Allman (slide guitar, lead guitar), Gregg Allman (piano, organ, vocals), Dickey Betts (lead guitar), Berry Oakley (bass guitar), Jai Johanny Johanson (drums, congas, timbales) and Butch Trucks (drums, tympani). A few months after the album had come out Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Bon Jovi’s New Album Hits the Mark

The New Jersey rocker delivers a solid set of new songs.

On Friday (Nov 4), Bon Jovi released his 13th studio album, This House Is Not For Sale – the first without Richie Sambora. For the most part, it sounds like classic Bon Jovi.

When Sambora left in 2013 after 30 years, many people were wondering whether Bon Jovi could continue. My initial doubts were largely pushed aside after seeing one of the band’s shows that year in New Jersey. I always thought Sambora was such an integral part of the band who would be hard to replace, but I have to say Phil X did a great job. As such, I’m not surprised he appears on the new album as a core member of the band.

Another new official member is Hugh McDonald. After having worked with Bon Jovi in the studio since the band’s inception and been its bassist since 1994, this was long overdue. The remaining line-up includes original members Tico Torres (drums, percussion) and David Bryan (keyboards, piano).

Bon Jovi has always had a great gift to combine rock music with catchy hook lines. The album’s title song, which was previously released as a single in August, perfectly illustrates this. While it’s probably hard to write another Livin’ On a Prayer, the tune could well have been included on Crush, Have a Nice Day or The Circle, Bon Jovi’s studio releases from 2000, 2005 and 2009, respectively. I have no doubt it will become a crowd pleaser during future live shows, as will Knockout, the second single released last month.

Some of the reviews I’ve seen note Sambora brought a certain edginess to Bon Jovi’s sound that’s missing on the new album. Sure, the songs don’t rock quite as hard as on the band’s releases from the 80s. But their music started to evolve from pop metal to more of a pop rock formula while Sambora was still there.

Sambora may have left the band in 2013, but he certainly continued to be on Jon Bon Jovi’s mind. While in various interviews Bon Jovi suggested the door isn’t necessarily shut for Sambora to return, he was quick to add he didn’t think this was possible after having been absent for such a long time. He is probably right.

The album’s second song, Living with the Ghost, is said to reflect Bon Jovi’s thoughts on Sambora’s departure. While Bon Jovi has denied rumors about a fall-out over money, Sambora’s departure remains mysterious to this day. Regardless of the specific circumstances, the lyrics suggest some bitter feelings, at least on Bon Jovi’s end:

“I ain’t living with the ghost

No future living in the past

I’ve seen what hate has done to hope

Tomorrow wasn’t built to last

I ain’t living with the ghost

How can I scream? I’m scared to breathe

I wrote each word, you gave the toast

But we were fire and gasoline

I ain’t living with the ghost…”

Labor of Love, a ballad, has guitar portions that remind me a bit of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. The album also includes two other slow songs. To me the standout among these tunes is Scars on This Guitar.

Jon Bon Jovi co-wrote most of the album’s songs with Billy Falcon and John Shanks, both musical collaborators on previous studio releases. Shanks also became the band’s touring rhythm guitarist this year.

Now that the new album is out, Bon Jovi fans won’t have to wait for too long for a chance to see the band return to the stage. According to a Rolling Stone story from last month, Bon Jovi is planning a six-week tour in 2017 in support of the new album. The 20-gig tour is supposed to kick off on Feb 8 in Greenville, SC and conclude on March 22nd in Indianapolis.