What I’ve Been Listening To: John Mayer

While I grudgingly agree with a recent Wall Street Journal story that the end of the rock & roll age has started, great young contemporary artists like John Mayer give me hope that not all may be lost.

Yesterday, I found myself listening to The Search for Everything: Wave Two. It’s the second batch of songs from John Mayer’s upcoming seventh studio album. Essentially, he has been releasing the new material as EPs since January, though the next release reportedly is going to be the entire record rather than Wave Three. The Search for Everything is slated to come out April 14.

After I had enjoyed the four songs from Wave Two, I decided to pull up my John Mayer playlist in iTunes. It includes material from all of his previous six studio releases, his excellent 2008 live album Where the Light Is, as well as his cool version of rock & roll classic Route 66 from the soundtrack of the 2006 animated motion picture Cars.

As I started listening through the playlist, I was reminded what a talented singer-songwriter Mayer is. Plus, the fact Eric Clapton repeatedly invited you to perform at his Crossroads Guitar Festivals, which in addition to “Slowhand” featured giants like Buddy Guy, B.B. KingJeff Beck and Carlos Santana,  it’s a good indication you must be a pretty decent guitarist as well. Mayer participated in four of the five festivals in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013.

Mayer started his recording career as a 21-year-old with the EP Inside Out, which appeared in Sep 1999. He has since become a pretty prolific recording artist with five additional EPs, six studio records and seven live albums. His discography also includes three compilation and two video albums. And, as if his solo work didn’t keep him busy enough, Mayer also formed a blues rock band in 2005, the John Mayer Trio, together with two of the finest studio musicians: bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan.

So what is it about John Mayer? To start with, he has a great ear for catchy melodies. There is also something very soothing about his voice, which becomes particularly apparent in quieter, acoustic-oriented tunes. Great examples are Love Soon from his first EP and Daughters from Mayor’s second studio album Heavier Things. Released in September 2003, the album debuted at no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, and the tune song won “Song of the Year” at the 2005 Grammy Awards.

While Mayer wrote many great songs, the standout to me is Waiting on the World to Change. From the soul grove to the lyrics, this masterpiece could have been written and performed by none other than the great Marvin Gaye. I could see it on Gaye’s 1971 gem What’s Going On. Appearing on Mayer’s 2006 third studio release Continuum, Waiting on the World to Change reached the top spot of the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 2007 Grammys.

And then there is of course Mayer’s love for the blues. It doesn’t hurt he is also a gifted electric blues guitarist. One very cool example is his cover version of the Ray Charles tune I Don’t Need No Doctor from the above mentioned live album Where the Light Is. The sound of what must be a Fender Stratocaster and even his voice remind me of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my absolute favorite electric blues guitarists. While I do like Mayer’s more pop-oriented music, I actually wouldn’t mind, if he would focus more on the blues going forward.

The blues is an appropriate transition back to that Wall Street Journal story, which by the way is great though somewhat depressing read. Yes, I’m afraid the reporter is right: the end of the rock era as we’ve known it has begun. Defining artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are in their seventies or not far from it – not to mention all the giants we’ve lost over the past couple of years, the latest being Mr. Rock & Roll himself, Chuck Berry.

While it is impossible for John Mayer to replace the above rock & roll giants, as long as there are young and talented music artists like him who deliver true craftsmanship, I’m carefully optimistic there is a future for great music. Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of Waiting on the World to Change.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Wall Street Journal, YouTube

In Memoriam of Chuck Berry

When I listened to Johnny B. Goode for the first time, I instantly realized Chuck Berry sounded differently than any other guitarist I had ever heard.

When I saw a push message in my smartphone yesterday about the death of Chuck Berry, I was in disbelief at first. Sure, I knew the man had turned 90 last October, so he wasn’t exactly a teenager any longer. But I also recalled Berry had used that happy occasion to announce his first new record in 38 years slated for release sometime this year. I suspect it will become a big seller, which would be a cruel irony that happened to many other music artists after they passed away.

Chuck Berry’s influence on rock & roll music cannot be overstated. To begin with, there was simply no guitarist at the time who could play the electric guitar “like a ringing bell.” Berry’s style may sound crude at times, but try playing his licks, and you quickly realize it’s much more sophisticated than you might think – I found out myself! Admittedly, I was always much more an acoustic guy, and the electric guitar certainly did not come naturally to me.

In addition to being an innovative guitarist who created his own signature sound, Berry was an incredible showman. Perhaps the move for which he is best remembered is the “duckwalk” he popularized in the 1950’s – a whooping 30 years before another walk made music history: Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in 1983. While the origins of the duckwalk reportedly go back to 1930’s performance by T-Bone Walker, one of Berry’s influences, it was Berry who put the move on the map and who is typically credited as its inventor.

And then there are of course all the iconic classic rock & roll tunes Berry wrote: Maybellene, Roll Over Beethoven, Too Much Monkey Business, School Day, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Carol, Little Queenie – and the list goes on! Remarkably, none of these amazing songs topped the mainstream U.S. charts. Sweet Little Sixteen came closest, reaching no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958; it did hit no. 1 on the R&B Best Sellers chart the same year. Berry’s only no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 was My Ding-a-Ling in 1972. While I read he always stood by the tune, I think it’s fair to say an important reason why the song became so successful was the ill-fated refusal from many radio stations to play it because of its lyrics.

Many of Berry’s tunes were covered by other artists. In fact, the very first single from The Rolling Stones in 1963, Come On, is a Berry tune he had first released in 1961. The Beatles were also big fans of Berry and did excellent covers of Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music – in fact, I have to say I prefer the latter to the original version! Yet another great example of a Berry cover is the Yardbirds’ Too Much Monkey Business on their 1964 debut live album Five Live Yardbirds with Eric Clapton on lead guitar – nothing “slowhand” about this absolute killer version!

Reportedly, Berry was not an easy person to deal with offstage. He had certain rules that could not be broken. He always demanded payment in advance of any performance and a specific guitar amplifier. He also insisted on a limousine for his shows, which he would drive himself. Instead of relying on a standing set of touring musicians, he asked concert promoters to hire local backup bands for him. Together with not providing set lists in advance of gigs, it’s not surprising this sometimes impacted the quality of his live shows. But I also read other accounts suggesting Berry was a very kind-hearted man who was simply reluctant to trust people he didn’t know well, since he felt life had betrayed him in the past.

Not surprisingly, when an influential artist like Chuck Berry passes away, social media lights up with present or past sentiments expressed by other great rock guitarists. I’d like to share some of them. For Rolling Stone’s December 2010 feature 100 Greatest Artists, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry wrote, “I heard Chuck Berry Is On Top – and I really freaked out! That feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach, in the hair in the back of my neck: I got more of it from Chuck Berry than from anybody else.”

For a rock music fan, it’s easy to understand Perry’s reaction. Released in July 1959, Berry’s third studio album included some of his greatest gems, such as Carol, Maybellene, Johnny B. Goode, Little Queenie and Roll Over Beethoven – all on one album and all written by him!

Bruce Springsteen, who set the stage on fire playing Johnny B. Goode with Berry and the E Street Band during a 1995 concert for the opening of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s museum, tweeted, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.”

Keith Richards wrote on Facebook, “One of my big lights has gone out.” The post was accompanied by a photo showing Richards standing on stage next to Berry with the following caption: “I don’t even know if Chuck realizes what he did. I don’t think he does…It was just such a total thing, a great sound, a great rhythm coming off the needle of all of Chuck’s records. It’s when I knew what I wanted to do.” More specifically, that moment came for Richards when as a teenager he saw Berry perform Sweet Little Sixteen at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, which was captured in the film documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day, as he told Rolling Stone.

Perhaps the most beautiful take came from the E Street Band’s Little Steven on the Facebook page of his excellent radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage: 

“Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry was the King of Rock and Roll. Period. Richard brought the Passion, Elvis the Heartbreak, Bo the Beat, Jerry Lee the Abandon, Buddy let the Everyman in, Chuck brought the Storytelling. The words that Bob Dylan would evolve into an Artform. He led the teenage takeover of Pop Music that the Beatles and Stones would complete. He invented Rock guitar and made it look like fun. He gave the previously ignored age group between adolescence and adulthood an identity, a mythology, a chance to see themselves. He gave them Respect. And those teenagers would return that respect to Rock and Roll for the next 60 years and counting.

– Little Steven, March 18 2017”

I have nothing to add, except offering a clip of Berry’s amazing performance of Too Much Monkey Business, which features a very cool solo by Keith Richards, of course played Chuck Berry style! It’s taken from Taylor Hackford’s 1987 music documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll, shot to celebrate Berry’s 60’s birthday. In addition to Richards, other artists performing with Berry included Linda Ronstadt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Etta James, Johnnie Johnson, Steve Jordan, Bobby Keys, Julian Lennon and Joey Spampinato.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube

It’s Only Rock & Roll, But I Like It

It took me to the second-to-last day of Exhibitionism in New York City to catch this great installation about one of my favorite bands, The Rolling Stones.

Usually, I’m not a guy who waits until the last minute, but somehow this is what happened with Exhibitionism. I’m glad I finally got to visit this comprehensive, multimedia, interactive exhibition about The Rolling Stones at Industria in New York City’s West Village, just before it moves to Chicago.

Nine thematic galleries allow visitors to take a look at “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” from many different angles. I mostly agree with the organizers that Exhibitionism is not only for Stones fans, although they will mostly appreciate it.

Things start out with a collage of videos projected on a wall, showing concert and other footage of the Stones, with commentary from different members of the band. It gets you right in the mood for more.

The next gallery is an impressive recreation of a tiny apartment in London where the Stones lived together in their early days. The mess everywhere makes it quite obvious the guys were not much concerned about cleaning.

Exhibitionism 1

The focus of the third gallery is a replica of London’s Olympic Studios packed with music equipment- pretty awesome! The gallery also features some cool vintage guitars from Keith Richards and Brian Jones, concert posters, photos and other memorabilia.

Exhibitionism 2

The fourth gallery is the highlight of the installation, but I admit that as a hobby musician, I’m biased here. It revolves all around guitars, mostly from Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards. It also displays the 1963 Gibson acoustic guitar Mick Jagger used to write You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Right before you enter, you can also see Bill Wyman’s Framus semi-acoustic bass and a gorgeous Modulus fretless bass from Daryl Jones, who became a Stones touring member in 1993, following Wyman’s retirement.

Exhibitionism 8

Another cool feature of this gallery are interactive mixing desks in the middle of the room. They allow you to isolate or otherwise manipulate different recording tracks, such as Jagger’s voice, Richard’s and Wood’s guitars and Watts’ drums, for various Stones songs like Rocks Off, Start Me Up and Angie.

Another gallery revolves around art work, from the iconic lips-and-tongue logo, to tour advertisements to album covers. A screening cinema presents footage from various Rolling Stones concert movies, narrated by Martin Scorsese, who has frequently used the band’s music in his motion pictures. Scorsese also shot his own Stones concert movie, Shine a Light, which documents the band’s 2006 performances at New York City’s Beacon Theatre during the A Bigger Bang Tour.

Exhibitionism 12

One of the largest galleries toward the end of the exhibition presents an eclectic collection of Stones’ stage outfits over five decades. Exhibitionism also recreates a backstage area and culminates in a 3D concert experience of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. While the 3D display is a neat effect, I wish the film would use a larger screen, so the Stones would be more life-size.

Today is Exhibitionism’s last day in New York City after three months. Next it will travel to Chicago, an appropriate host city, given the Stones’ long and strong connection with the Blues. The installation will debut there at Navy Pier on April 15 for a four-month engagement. Exhibitionism had its world premiere in April 2016 at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

Here is a nice clip of Jagger, Richards, Watts and Woods discussing the exhibition and their active input in shaping it.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

The Joshua Tree Turns 30

Not only did this 1987 album catapult U2 to international superstardom, but it is also one of the band’s best records in its 40-plus-year history.

Since U2’s announcement in early January of a summer tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, the seminal album has been on my mind. So it was only a matter of time before I would write a post about it.

Released on March 9, 1987, The Joshua Tree is one of my favorite U2 records. That the Irish rock band named its fifth studio album after a tree that grows in the Mojave Desert in the southwestern U.S. is not a coincidence. The lyrics and music were inspired by U2’s feelings about America at the time: an admiration of its ideals, freedoms and open spaces, mixed with antipathy toward political and social concerns.

U2’s appreciation of landscapes like the Mojave Desert becomes apparent not only in the album’s cover art but also in its sound, which I’ve seen described as “cinematic.” One of the best examples of this cinematic sound is the beginning of the ballad Running to Stand Still. It features a Ry Cooder-type slide guitar that could come right out of the musical score for the 1984 drama motion picture Paris, Texas.

Joshua Tree features some of U2’s most iconic songs, including Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You. The two latter tunes became the band’s only singles to hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. The first song only made it to no. 13 on that chart – surprising, in my opinion, since I find it as strong as the two other tracks.

Bullet the Blue Sky is the album’s most haunting tune, using heavy guitar feedback, distortion and slide-guitar playing to great effect. Lyrically, it’s one of U2’s most political songs that has become a staple of the band’s live concerts, where it has been performed with references to violence and political conflicts.

The album’s final track, Mothers of the Disappeared, is equally moving. It pays tribute to Madres de Plaza de Mayo and COMADRES, groups of mothers in Argentina and El Salvador, respectively, whose children had “disappeared” during the dictatorship eras in these countries. Two other songs that stand out to me are Red Hill Mining Town and In God’s Country.

All of the album’s lyrics were written by Bono, while all music is credited to U2. In addition to Bono (lead vocals, harmonica, guitars), the band includes The Edge (guitars, backing vocals, piano), Adam Clayton (bass guitar) and Larry Mullen Jr. (drums, percussion).

While U2 plays amazingly well as a band and has gotten even better over the decades, I’d like to call out The Edge. In my book, he is one of the coolest guitarists who managed to create a signature sound that is unique and instantly recognizable – not a small feat, if you consider how many rock guitarists are out there!

The Joshua Tree was U2’s second album produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who were also involved in producing many of the band’s subsequent records. In addition to U2, Lanois has produced for a variety other great artists, such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Peter Gabriel, while Eno has collaborated with David Bowie and David Byrne, among others.

With more than 25 million copies sold worldwide, The Joshua Tree is one of the most successful records. The album climbed to the top of the charts in more than 20 countries, including the U.S. Billboard 200. It also won two Grammy awards in 1988 for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Even the U.S. Library of Congress recognized the album’s significance and selected it for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2014.

In a Facebook chat with fans on the day of the 30th anniversary, The Edge explained “U2 became a really popular band” during the initial Joshua Tree Tour in 1987. Troves of fans crowded in front of U2’s hotels and outside concert venues, frequently forcing the band to escape through back doors – it almost sounded a bit like “Beatlemania.”

It will no doubt be different during the upcoming The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, which includes 21 concerts in North America and 12 shows in Europe. The tour kicks off on May 12th in Vancouver, Canada, and concludes on August 1st in Brussels, Belgium. U2 is one of the greatest live bands, and I can’t wait to see them on June 29th at MetLife Stadium in East, Rutherford, N.J.

In addition to the upcoming tour, U2 fans can also look forward to “the ultimate collector’s edition of The Joshua Tree,” which the band announced on the eve of the album’s 30th anniversary. The reissue, which is slated for release on June 2nd, will be available in various formats, including vinyl and CD super deluxe box sets, a 2-CD deluxe set, standard vinyl and CD releases, and different digital formats. I might go for the vinyl!

Here is a great clip of a live performance of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.

Sources: Wikipedia, Facebook, U2 web site, YouTube


Small Town Rocker Gearing Up For More R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

Last week, John Mellencamp released the second single from his upcoming new album “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” which he will support with a U.S. tour this summer.

I’ve been a huge fan of John Mellencamp for many years. He’s one of my favorite rock singer-songwriters, along with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. I always enjoy checking out his new music, and so far, I like what I’ve heard from his upcoming new album.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which is set for release on April 28th, will be Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album. It features  country singer and songwriter Carlene Carter, the daughter of Johnny Cash’s second wife, June Carter. Carter was the opening act for Mellencamp’s last 2015-2016 tour that supported his previous studio album Plain Spoken.

On February 24, the second single from Sad Clowns & Hillbillies appeared. Grandview features country artist Martina McBride. The song is a bit more rock-oriented than much of Mellencamp’s music in recent years. It reminds me somewhat of the American Fool and Scaregrow albums from the 80s.

The first single from the new album, Easy Target, was released on January 19th. The timing on the eve of the Presidential inauguration was not a coincidence. Sung with a raspy voice, the bleak ballad touches on income disparities and mindless shootings of African Americans in the U.S. In a Yahoo! News interview with Katie Couric, Mellencamp characterized the song as “a reflection on the state of the country.”

For much of his now more than 40-year career, Mellencamp has voiced his political opinions through some of his songs, from his criticism of Ronald Reagan in the 80s to the Iraq war in 2003. Together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, he also started Farm Aid in 1985, which raises awareness of the importance of family farms and has organized concerts almost every year since then. The organization celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015.

Mellencamp was born in the small town of Seymour, Ind. on October 7, 1951. He still lives in Indiana to this day close to Bloomington on the shores of Lake Monroe.  According to the bio on his web site, Mellencamp was attracted to music at an early age and already was performing in local bars when he was 14.

Mellencamp’s recording career started in 1976 with the release of Chestnut Street Incident under the name of Johnny Cougar. His breakthrough came in 1979 with I Need a Lover from his third studio album John Cougar. Mellencamp’s fifth studio release American Fool brought broad commercial success. It reached no. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, held that position for nine weeks, and became the best-selling record of the year. The records includes the classics Hurts So Good and Jack & Diane.

One of my favorite Mellencamp albums is 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. It blends rock with traditional folk and country instruments, creating a warm and rich sound. It was a new style for Mellencamp, which he would continue to embrace on many of his successive records. To me the standouts are Paper in Fire, Check It Out, Cherry Bomb and We Are the People. The album became one of Mellencamp’s most successful releases worldwide.

Apart from writing great songs over so many years, Mellencamp has also done some excellent covers. Two of my favorites are the Van Morrison tune Wild Night, included on the Dance Naked album (1994), and a fantastic version of The Drifters’ hit Under the Boardwalk from 1999’s Rough Harvest. For some reason, until recently, I had pretty much ignored that collection of alternate acoustic versions of Mellencamp tunes and some covers, until a good friend pointed it out. Another highlight on Rough Harvest is an unbelievable cover of Dylan’s Farewell Angelina.

Mellencamp’s summer tour will kick off in Denver on June 5 and after more than 20 gigs conclude on July 11 in Forest Hills, NY. In addition to Carlene Carter, the tour will feature Emmylou Harris and folk pop duo Lily & Madeleine. I saw Mellencamp once about 20 years ago – I believe somewhere in upstate New York. I would love to catch the show at Forest Hills Stadium, a great venue where I also saw The Who a few years ago.

Here’s a nice clip of Mellencamp and McBride performing Grandview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo! News, John Mellencamp web site, YouTube