What I’ve Been Listening To: Lenny Kravitz/Are You Gonna Go My Way

Lenny Kravitz’s third studio album is full of seductive guitar-driven rock

With Are You Gonna Go My Way, Lenny Kravitz finally earned the recognition he deserved. At ca. 1989, only some four years prior to the release of his third studio album, record labels had told this incredibly talented artist that his music was neither “black enough” nor “white enough.” After Kravitz’s first two solo records had appeared, many critics said he sounded too retro – too much 60’s, too much Hendrix. You wonder what’s wrong with sounding like Hendrix, one of the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived!

Are You Gonna My Way, which was released in March 1993, kicks off with the furious title song. Co-written by Kravitz and fellow rock guitarist Craig Ross, the tune features one the best rock guitar riffs of the ’90s. It became the album’s lead single, was nominated for various awards, and won the 1993 MTV Music Award for Best Male Artist. Here’s a clip from the award ceremony, featuring Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass – so retro, Lenny, how could you!

Ross, who like Kravitz is a hell of a guitarist, also co-wrote two other songs on the album: My Love and Is There Any Love In Your Heart, a rocker with a cool Zeppelinesque groove. Ross went on to work with Kravitz on all of his future albums.

Are You Gonna Go My Way also features various quieter tunes. One that stands out to me is Heaven Help, a beautiful love song written by Gerry DeVeaux and Terry Britten.

Another track I’d like to call out is the album’s closer, Eleutheria. Written by Kravitz, the laid back reggae tune is about the small island in the Bahamas where he owns a home.

Are You Gonna Go My Way peaked at number 12 on the Billboard 200 and sold more 2.2 million copies in the U.S. The album was also successful internationally, hitting no. 1 in both the U.K. and Australia, and no. 7 in Germany.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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In Memoriam of Gregg Allman

Rock music has lost another giant

Considering I’ve been a music fan for nearly 40 years, I feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I “discovered” The Allman Brothers Band very late. Sure, I had known and liked Ramblin’ Man for a long time, but it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago that I really started exploring their music. From there I quickly proceeded to Gregg Allman’s solo records. Once I did, I quickly realized what I had missed between the two for all this time!

Even though I knew Allman was not in good health and also read rumors about hospice care a few months ago, I’m still in disbelief this great artist is gone. As I’m writing this post, new reports about his death and obituaries literally keep appearing by the minute. I don’t feel I need to add to this by writing another recap of his life. Instead, I’d like to let his music do the talking.

Undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable performances of the Allman Brothers is Whipping Post at Fillmore East in 1970, when killer guitarist Duane Allman was still around. It’s just epic!

Here is another one – the “laid back” version of Midnight Rider, which I’ve come to like even more than the Brothers’ original version.

Soulshine live at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in 2013. This literally brings tears to my eyes.

Last but not least, here is an awesome rehearsal version of Just Another Rider from Allman’s last solo album Low Country Blues (2011).

To quote a Rolling Stone story, “Gregg Allman was blessed with one of blues-rock’s great growling voices and, along with his Hammond B-3 organ playing (beholden to Booker T. Jones), had a deep emotional power.” Well said!

Allman may be gone, but I’ve no doubt his music will live on.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Sgt. Pepper Hits 50 And Is Getting Better

Producer Giles Martin and music engineer Sam Okell have created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967

On June 1, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in England. The U.S. release appeared the following day. Since so much has been written about the history of the groundbreaking album, I won’t repeat it and instead focus on the 50th anniversary special edition, which appeared yesterday (May 26). The impressive reissue comes in four different configurations, including a double LP-set I’m proud to own – my first new vinyl in 30 years!

No matter whether or not you agree with Rolling Stone’s bold assessment that Sgt. Pepper “is the most important rock & roll album ever made,” there can be no doubt it’s one of the most famous records of all time. And an album that took recording innovations The Beatles had introduced on their previous studio album Revolver to the next level and completed their transformation into an all-studio band. So why did Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, make the gutsy decision to tinker with it? In a nutshell, he wanted to improve the listening experience of the album’s most common version, the stereo mix.

“In 1967, all care to attention and detail were applied to making the mono LP, with The Beatles present for all mixes,” explains Martin in the liner notes of the reissue [note: I can only quote the liner notes for the deluxe vinyl set, since I don’t own any of the other three configurations]. “Almost as an afterthought, the stereo album was mixed very quickly without them. Yet it is the stereo version that most people listen to today. After forensically working out what the team had been up to when mixing the mono album, engineer Sam Okell and I set out about creating a new stereo version by returning to the original four-track tapes. We soon realised why we were doing this. The music recorded five decades ago sounds both contemporary and timeless; trapped in a time-lock waiting to pop like a cork from a champagne bottle.”

Sgt. Pepper 2

Martin’s comments are a nice way of saying that the previous stereo remix, while representing an improvement over the original rather poor stereo version, still by far did not come close to the mono version. Essentially, his goal was to create a new stereo mix that preserves the best elements of the mono version, which is widely considered to be the best mix. So how did he do?

My point of reference is what must be the initial “bad” stereo mix, which I’ve owned on vinyl since my teenage years, not the mono version. I also should mention my home stereo and loudspeakers are not high-end equipment. Even with all these caveats, and I’m afraid partial hearing loss from my long ago band days as a bassist, there are definitely some obvious improvements I’ve noticed. Getting a good set of headphones would probably reveal more.

One of the things The Beatles’ record engineers did to quickly create stereo mixes back in the ’60s was to put all or most of the vocals on one channel and most of the instruments on the other channel. Unfortunately, this oftentimes made the singing less forceful and muffled some of the music. One of tunes where this is very obvious is the album’s title song. For the remix, Paul McCartney’s lead vocals were moved to the center, making it more like a mono version, which substantially adds to its dynamic.

Another notable difference between the two vinyl stereo mixes I own is that the instruments have a clearer and more vibrant sound on the new version. Good examples are the horns in the title song, Ringo Starr’s drums in With a Little Help From My Friends and McCartney’s bass in Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds. “My father had to record everything on a four track,” explained Martin in an interview with NPR, conducted ahead of the remix’s release. “And that was bounced to another four-track. [Each time sounds are bounced to another tape the sound degrades]. What we do is we go back to the previous generation, so we’re mixing off generations of tape that they never mixed off…What was recorded in ’67 sounds pure and crystal clear — there’s not any hiss or anything.”

Sgt. Pepper 3

In addition to the stereo remix, all configurations of the special anniversary release include earlier versions of the songs. In the case of the vinyl set, it’s one earlier take of each song, with the tracks being arranged in the same order than on the final album. I think it’s safe to say these earlier takes are primarily meaningful to true Beatles fans, less to casual listeners.

Comparing the takes with the final versions certainly is fascinating to me. But I think I’m okay with one alternate take per song and don’t need to have multiple earlier versions. Perhaps the most notable example on the vinyl set is take 1 of A Day In the Life, in which the final E note is hummed by “The Beatles and friends gathered around a microphone,” as the liner notes describe it. But even after overdubbing, the humming was a mismatch to the preceding climax of the orchestra. Therefore, it “was replaced by a cavernous E major chord struck on a variety of keyboards.”

What I find even more intriguing than the unfinished tracks is listening to the conversations right before and after the takes between (George) Martin and The Beatles and among members of the band. One cool example occurs right after Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, when McCartney demonstrates to John Lennon an alternative rhythm to sing the line Cellophane flowers of yellow and green. It’s a nice illustration how the two truly collaborated in harmony, something that would start to unravel only a few months later after Beatles manager Brian Epstein had passed away.

George and Giles Martin

The remix of Sgt. Pepper was not Martin’s first foray into Beatles territory. In 2006, he collaborated with his father on Love, which is part soundtrack to the theatrical production by Cirque du Soleil and part remix album. In fact, as George noted in a 2007 interview with Sound on Sound, he had given up recording because of bad hearing, but when McCartney, Starr, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono approached him about the project, he couldn’t refuse. “But I couldn’t have done it without Giles. He’s my ears.” In 2009, Giles produced the music for the video game The Beatles: Rock Band. He also was executive producer for McCartney’s 2013 studio album New.

The above poses the question whether Martin has any plans to remix other Beatles albums that will hit their 5oth anniversary over the next couple of years. “I don’t know,” he told The Independent. “I speak to Paul or Olivia Harrison or Ringo and Yoko [Ono] about this…We all talk about what’s the right thing to do morally. It’s not a question of keeping the brand going or shifting units…There’s so much love for it that if people want it… I mean, The White Album turns 50 next year which actually, to be honest, I’d love to have a go at mixing. There’s a weird moral context behind this: the mono of Sgt. Pepper’s is the definitive version and the studio was done very quickly, but you can’t say that about The White Album as it was mixed very quickly in different rooms by different people. I think if there’s a desire for it, then yes is the answer…But it’s not my decision. If people want me to work, I’ll work.”

Sources: Wikipedia; liner notes, Sgt. Pepper deluxe 2-LP vinyl package; The Beatles web site; NPR “All Songs Considered”; Sound on Sound; The Independent

Little Steven’s New Album Rocks & Souls on Six Cylinders

Van Zandt’s first solo album in nearly 18 years is a great collection of horn-accented rock and a couple of surprises.

When I listened to the title song of Steven Van Zandt’s new album Soulfire, which was released as the record’s lead single a couple of weeks ago, my first thoughts were his guitar gig with the E Street Band and his fantastic radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. The fact Van Zandt does his own music wasn’t on my radar screen. Perhaps that’s not such a big surprise, given Soulfire is Little Steven’s first solo album since 1999’s Born Again Savage. But what a terrific return!

From the great opener (title song) to the last tune Ride the Night Away, it’s simply a joy to listen to Soulfire, which takes you on a trip back to the ’60s, rock with plenty of horn accents, as well as some blues, R&B and even doo-wop. “For those who are familiar with my work, Soulfire is a return to how most people identify me, which is that soul-meets-rock thing,” Van Zandt told Billboard. As noted above, admittedly, I only had limited knowledge of his impressive work, so I definitely had and still have some catching up to do!

Steven Van Zandt Soulfire 2

Soulfire is a collection of songs Van Zandt has written or co-written over the past four decades, supplemented with a few covers. To me the standout among the latter is his take of the James Brown tune Down and Out in New York City. When I heard the beginning for the first time, I was like, ‘wait a moment, what just happened?’ The percussion and the wah-wah guitar sound like the start of a Barry White grove. I could literally picture White’s deep voice coming on next – very cool!

“I love the blaxploitation genre,” Van Zandt explained to Elmore Magazine. “We do a special on the radio show every year, the day after Thanksgiving, we call it ‘Blaxploitation Friday.’…….We did it for BluesFest, came up with a really cool groove and a new horn line and made it our own.” Apart from being a great version, the tune also showcases Van Zandt’s versatility.

Blues Is My Business, written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cerney and initially performed by Etta James, is another terrific cover. I like the way USA Today characterized the song: “Nothing else on Soulfire so clearly traces his key roots, including an introductory riff that echoes Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic and a slamming bass and guitar groove grounded in Otis Redding’s and Carla Thomas’ Tramp.” The way Van Zandt sings the song, the great background vocals and the groove also remind me a bit of Joe Cocker.

Five songs on Soulfire go back to Van Zandt’s time with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a band he co-founded with John Lyon (“Southside Johnny”) in the mid-70s and whose first three albums he produced. Some of these tunes include I Don’t Want to Go Home, the title song from the Jukes’ 1976 debut album; Love on the Wrong Side of Town, a co-write with Bruce Springsteen that appeared on This Time It’s For Real (1977); and I’m Coming Back, from the Jukes’ 1991 release Better Days.

Standing in the Line of Fire is a great version of the title song of Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1984 album, which Van Zandt co-produced with Bond. Soulfire is a perfect opener that sets the album’s tone. The intro with its funky guitar and pumping rhythm immediately draw you in. “I wrote it several years ago with one of the Breakers, a Danish band on my label Wicked Cool,” Van Zandt told Rolling Stone. “The song felt like the obvious centerpiece of an album that is conceived to not only reintroduce myself as an artist, but also serve as a summary of a lifetime of work.”

Another standout on the album is The City Weeps Tonight, which illustrates Van Zandt’s appreciation of doo-wop music, a genre he also likes to play on his great radio show. In fact, in 1973, he even toured with a doo-wop band, The Dovells. Initially, Van Zandt had planned to include the tune on his 1982 debut album Men Without Women but didn’t finish it at the time.

Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul

I realize I’m already very deep into this post without having said a word about Little Steven’s backup band: The Disciples of Soul. Van Zandt initially put the band together for his debut solo album. They were also prominent on his 1994 follow-up Voice of America. Last year, he reformed the Disciples. Other than the fact that it’s a 15-piece band he put together to record the new album during a break between the European and Australian legs of Springsteen’s last tour, I couldn’t find any information on the current lineup. What I can safely say is the Disciples are a killer band!

In addition to his solo music and Little Steven’s Underground Garage, there are are so many more sides to Van Zandt that it’s pretty much impossible to give him full justice in one post – from political activist to TV actor and producer to philanthropist – so I’m not even gonna try. Let’s just say, Van Zandt wears many different hats or perhaps more appropriately bandanas. This certainly at least in part explains why it almost took him 20 years to release a new solo album.

Little Steven also always has something interesting to say about music. So what’s his take on the status of rock? “I call it an endangered species,” he told Billboard in the above interview. “The rock era is over. I clock it from [Bob Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone” [1965, added for context] to the death of Kurt Cobain [1994, added for context], which was almost exactly 30 years. At that point we returned to a pop era and rock returned to being a cult, which, to be honest, is probably where it belongs. It was never meant to really be the mainstream. We just staged a coup d’état on the charts in the mid-’60s.”

As big rock fan, I hate to admit Van Zandt pretty much nailed it with his above comments. And while he doesn’t believe rock will come back “because the infrastructure that created rock is no longer there,” I’d like to stay a bit more optimistic – maybe there is also a dose of naivete. As long as we have guys like Van Zandt, the Boss, John Mellencamp and Tom Petty, to name a few, rock isn’t dead yet. Hopefully, these artists will inspire more younger musicians to take the torch – obviously big shoes to fill!

Steven Van Zandt

Van Zandt will shortly embark on a tour to support Soulfire. According to the tour schedule on his web site, things will kick off next Sat, May 27, at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., a great venue I visited myself for another show last month. Interestingly, this already sold out gig appears to be the only planned performance in the U.S. thus far. Van Zandt & The Disciples will then take the show to Europe, where they are slated to play 17 dates across the continent in countries like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, to name some. The current last date is the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway on Aug 5.

Here’s a clip of a nice live performance of Soulfire, which appears to have been captured last October at London BluesFest in the U.K.

Sources: Wikipedia, Billboard, Elmore Magazine, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Little Steven’s web site, YouTube

 

What I’ve Been Listening to: Klaatu/3:47 EST

In August 1976, a then-obscure band from Canada released their debut album and sent the music world on a magical mystery tour.

“Could Klaatu be Beatles?” With this headline and his accompanying album review in Providence Journal in Feb 1977, writer Steve Smith started what Rolling Stone magazine would later call the “hype of the year.” While British magazine New Musical Express unkindly dismissed the article with a story titled, “Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatle Rumor,” it’s not very hard to see why Smith was puzzled about the record and saw four possibilities who could be behind the mystery band: The Beatles, a couple of Beatles with other people, a Beatle-backed band, or a completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.

Providence Journal Klaatu Review

To start with, there were no music or writing credits on the cover of 3:47 EST, which in the U.S. was simply called Klaatu. There were also no photos or any background on Klaatu’s musicians: bassist John Woloschuk, guitarist Dee Long and drummer Terry Draper. There was no producer identified either; instead the record simply indicated, “produced by Klaatu.” The big sun on the front side of the cover could easily be associated with the late Beatles tunes Here Comes the Sun and Sun King. The album was put out by Capitol Records in U.S., which had released most of the Beatles’ American records.

And then, of course, there was the music. For the most part, the vocals didn’t sound much like The Beatles, but the way the harmonies were done and the music on various songs certainly were very Beatlesque. It wasn’t a stretch of imagination to picture the fantastic opener Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft on Sgt. Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour. Perhaps the tune that sounded most like a Beatles song is the beautiful Sub-Rosa Subway. The melody easily could have been written by Paul McCartney. The piano part and bass and even the vocal sounded very similar to Paul.

Klaatu 2

So how did Klaatu feel about the rumors? During a 1980 interview with former Capitol Records editorial manager Stephen Peeples, which is posted on Klaatu’s web site, Draper said, “I think we were flattered more than anything. Surprised, though, considering that it was totally regardless of us that it happened. We didn’t perpetrate it. It just sorta came to pass by an article written in Providence [Journal] by Steve Smith. We were surprised as everyone else.”

At the time the rumors started, Klaatu was in England to record their second album Hope. The band essentially attributed their silence to a desire to remain anonymous musicians, which is why they had not included their names, photos or any biographical information on the album cover. At the same time, Klaatu recognized the debate gave the album a degree of exposure it would not have received otherwise. “We got more hype out of that than you could have manufactured with 15 promo records directors,” commented Woloschuk in the above interview. “I mean, it backfired on us. While we were looking for anonymity, we got more exposure than we could have dreamed was possible.”

Klaatu 3

I think it’s fair to conclude that Klaatu were pretty naive to think the story wouldn’t generate the type of backlash it eventually did. But in my opinion, it was Capitol Records that played the most incredible role in all of it. Apparently realizing all the mystery and swirling Paul-is-dead-like conspiracy theories were driving up the album’s sales, they did nothing the dispel the rumors. In fact, according to his above article, when Smith called Capitol Records, he reportedly was told Klaatu were a “mystery band.”

For his story Smith also talked to Frank Davies, who represented the band. At one point, Davies confirmed to the reporter Klaatu were not The Beatles and that the only connection was “inspirational.” But when Smith asked whether any former members of The Beatles played on the album, Davies reportedly said, “that everything ‘you’ve summarized is really pretty accurate all the way around’ and that ‘everything that is there, can be and will be identified even without, perhaps them, the people, being seen.'”

Eventually, Dwight Douglas, program director at radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C., put the mystery to an end. He checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered the band members’ real names. As soon as Klaatu’s identity became known, the album’s sales started to tumble and started the band’s slow decline. Klaatu released four additional albums and eventually disbanded in Aug 1982. They had two brief reunions in 1988 and 2005.

I could not find any official reactions from John, Paul, George or Ringo to the whole Klaatu saga. The closest is a Dec 2013 story about Klaatu, published by music magazine Goldmine. The feature includes an interview with Long, who met Paul in the late ’80s while working as an engineer at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. “Later, when I was working in Studio 5, there was a knock on the door, and in comes Paul,” Long recalled. “He introduced himself (like he needed any introduction) and said, ‘So you’re the chap from The Beatles clone band.’ He explained that he was on a TV talk show and the host played a bit of ‘Calling Occupants’ and asked Paul if that was him singing! Paul had never heard the song and said so…We talked for at least an hour, and I explained that we were never a clone band but just heavily influenced by The Beatles. We talked about music and life…He came back many times to hang out and jam and talk about writing songs. Again, he was just a wonderful person — easy to talk to, and full of positive energy. An experience I will always treasure.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Providence Journal, Klaatu web site, Goldmine

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: May 12

I suppose by now this recurring feature needs no further introduction. Let’s take a journey back to May 12 throughout rock history.

The Rolling Stones_Satisfaction Single

1965: The Rolling Stones recorded what would become one of the most epic anthems in rock, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, at RCA Studios in Hollywood, LA. Two days earlier, the Stones had recorded an earlier version, which featured Brian Jones on harmonica, at Chess Studios in Chicago. The iconic three-note guitar riff had come to Keith Richards during the band’s third U.S. tour in a dream in a motel room in Florida. He woke up and recorded it with a cassette machine. Released as a single in June and August  1965 in the U.S. and the U.K., respectively, Satisfaction became the Stones’ first no. 1 hit in America in July that year. In the U.K., the song initially received limited radio play, since its lyrics were considered too sexually suggestive, though eventually it reached the top of the charts there as well. Satisfaction was also included in the band’s fourth U.S. studio album Out of Our Heads, which appeared in Sep 1965. Rolling Stone ranked Satisfaction no. 2 in The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2011, behind Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and before John Lennon’s Imagine.

The Beatles_Yesterday and Today Collage

1966: Mixes of three Beatles songs from Revolver – Dr. Robert, I’m Only Sleeping and Your Bird Can Sing – were made for Yesterday…And Today. The 1966 U.S. compilation album became infamous for its initial cover, which showed the Beatles in white butcher jackets holding decapitated baby dolls and pieces of meat. The negative reaction to the “butcher cover” was so strong that Capital Records recalled 750,000 copies from distributors to replace the cover. While initially it had not been intended as cover art, John Lennon reportedly defended the photograph, saying it “was as relevant as Vietnam,” while Paul McCartney felt the critics were “soft.” George Harrison disagreed, calling the whole idea “gross” and “stupid.” Remarkably, the album still reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200 by July 30, 1966 and remained there for five weeks.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience_Are Your Experienced

1967: The Jimi Hendrix Experience released their debut studio album Are You Experienced in the U.K. Widely considered to be one of the greatest debuts in rock history, Jimi Hendrix’s innovative approach to songwriting and playing the electric guitar had a major influence on psychedelic and hard rock. The album’s U.S. version appeared in August that year and had a different song lineup. It included some of Hendrix’s best known songs, such as Purple Haze, Hey Joe and The Wind Cries Mary, which had all been successful singles in the U.K. The album climbed to no. 2 in the U.K. charts and reached no. 5 on the Billboard 200, staying in that chart for 106 weeks. Not surprisingly, Are You Experienced, is included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Records of All Time, ranked at no. 15.

Led Zeppelin_Houses of the Holy

1973: Houses of the Holy, the fifth studio album from Led Zeppelin, hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200, staying in the top spot for three weeks and remaining in the albums chart for 39 weeks. The record, which includes Zeppelin classics like The Song Remains the Same, Over the Hills and Far Away and D’yer Mak’er, is ranked no. 148 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Records of All Time. Initial reviews from music critics were less kind, however. For example, Rolling Stone’s Gordon Fletcher called it “one of the dullest and most confusing albums I’ve heard this year.”

Sources: This Day in Music.com, Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, The Beatles Bible

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ Team Up For Uplifting Blues Album

What do you get when Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ get together? TajMo and a great dose of beautiful music!

Unless I know of a newly released album that interests me, I usually don’t bother browsing the “new music” section in iTunes. Well, this morning I did so anyway and came across TajMo, a new album from Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. And it’s a true gem!

Perhaps the first thing that’s striking about TajMo, which was released on May 5, is its upbeat music – not exactly how you traditionally picture the blues! “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal in an interview posted on the web site that supports the album. “It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” He added, “We wanted to do a real good record together, but we didn’t want to do the record that everyone expected us to do.”

While the two artists have known each other for a long time and Mahal helped Mo’ get his first record deal, this is their first collaboration album. What took them so long? Well, for one, both have been busy with their own careers. Since his 1980 debut Rainmaker, which appeared under his actual name Kevin Moore, Mo’ has released 14 additional albums. The last one was That Hot Pink Blues Album from April 2016. Mahal’s most recent solo album (his 26th) Maestro dates back to 2008. Additionally, both artists kept busy with touring. Sometimes good things take time to happen!

“The making of this record spanned two and a half years, whenever we could get together between tours,” Mo’ said during the above interview on the album’s web site. “And over that two and a half years, I got to know Taj really well. We’d talk about music and life and what we were doing on the record. He’s a stellar human being, just a brilliant man. Making this record was a really big deal for me. I learned a lot working with him.” Added Mahal, “Keb’s really good at keeping the ball up in the air. I got to see quite a few sides of him, and I was really impressed. He’s a hell of a guitar player, and I’m just amazed at some of the stuff that he put out there.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo 3

The album kicks off with Don’t Leave Me Here, which has a cool grove with Memphis style horns and a great blues harp, with Mahal and Mo’ taking turns on lead vocals. Shake Me In Your Arms is a great old-school soul tune featuring Joe Walsh on guitar. Another standout is Soul, which provides a nice dose of Afro-Caribbean grove – an invitation to get up and dance!

The album also includes various terrific covers. One is Squeeze Box, a song from The Who I’ve always loved. Mahal and Mo’ truly make it their own, turning it into a Cajun-style tune. Another cover I’d like to call out is Waiting On the World to Change, my favorite John Mayer song. While I’m a huge fan of the original, after listening to Mahal and Mo’, I can’t help but think these guys were meant to sing this song. Further kicking it up a notch for me is Bonnie Raitt on background vocals.

In addition to Walsh and Raitt, other guest musicians on the album include Sheila E. and Liz Wright. TajMo was self-produced by the two blues men. The album was recorded in Nashville by Zach Allen, John Caldwell and Casey Wasner and mixed by Ross Hogarth.

I think No Depression’s take sums it up nicely: “This is how you create a masterpiece, layering it slowly and carefully. Two and a half years in the making, pieced together in Mo’s home studio between tours, the record sounds like one special night when the planets were perfectly aligned and the artists and the sound man was too. But the real beauty of this creation is that this creature won’t give you nightmares, and in this story, the night never ends.”

Taj Mahal & Keb Mo Concert Poster

Mahal and Mo’ will criss-cross the U.S. and play 39 shows in support of the album. The tour kicks off in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30 and concludes in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on Oct 28. After listening to this album, I couldn’t resist to get a ticket for Aug 10, when they’ll play the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa – not exactly next door for me, but I’m already excited and will be sure to blog about the show.

Here’s a clip of Don’t Leave Me Here.

Sources: American Songwriter, TajMo web site, American Blues Scene, Glide Magazine, No Depression (The Journal of Roots Music), Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: May 7

It’s time for another installment of this recurring feature.

As I’ve said on previous occasions, I always enjoy looking back at events that have happened in rock history over the decades. Let’s see what May 7th had in store:

Beatles at Star-Club

1962: The Beatles played their 24th of 48 nights at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany. It was part of the Fab Four’s first of three residencies at what was then the city’s newest rock & roll venue. The first residency included a whooping 172 hours over seven weeks and performances every night, except for Good Friday (April 20). The band’s performances (from their third residency) at the Star-Club were captured in the 1977 double album, Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962. While the sound quality is poor, the record is a great testament to the raw rock & roll music The Beatles played in those early pre-‘Beatle mania’ days. The intense performance schedule was the perfect preparation for the band to become one of the best live acts of the ’60s.

The Mamas and the Papas_Monday Monday Single 2

1966: The Mamas and the Papas hit the top of the U.S. charts with Monday, Monday, the band’s only no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Released as a single from their debut album If You Can Believe Your Ears and Eyes, the song also proved to be popular in the UK where it climbed to no. 3. Reportedly, except for John Philipps (“Papa John”) who wrote the tune, the remaining members of the band hated it. During an interview in 1969 for the radio series Pop Chronicles, Philipps said he wrote the song in about 20 minutes. In March 1967, it won the band a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group or Group with Vocal. It never continues to amaze me what categories they come up with for the Grammys.

Eagles Hotel California Single

1977: The Eagles hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Hotel California, one of the defining ’70s classic rock songs, which had been released as a single in Feb that year. It was the band’s fourth no. 1 hit in the U.S., after Best of My Life (1974), One of These Nights (1975) and New Kid in Town (1976). The title track of The Eagles fifth studio album also became the band’s biggest hit in the UK, climbing to no. 8. Writing credits for the tune are shared by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The song’s signature feature, the epic electric guitar solo at the end, is a fantastic interplay between Felder and Joe Walsh.  Rolling Stone ranked Hotel California no. 49 on its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Readers of Guitarist magazine also voted the solo as the best of all time in 1998. Here’s a great clip of an Eagles live performance of this gem.

Sources: The Beatles Bible, The Day in Music.com, Rolling Stone, Guitarist, Wikipedia

What I’ve Been Listening To: Stevie Wonder/Talking Book

Stevie Wonder’s 15th studio album is one of the many gems in his incredible catalog.

When it comes to an artist like Stevie Wonder, who has written, produced and released so much amazing music throughout a 50-year-plus career, it’s hard to decide which album to highlight. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons I picked Talking Book is Superstition, one of my all-time favorite tunes.

Various things amaze me about Wonder’s 15th studio album, which was released in Oct 1972. Even though he was only 22 years when he recorded it, Wonder already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. He also took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, Wonder called Talking Book a turning point, “his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.”

But Gordy did convince Wonder to record one song himself, instead of giving it to his friend Jeff Beck: Superstition. And when you hear the tune’s intro, it’s not hard to see why Wonder had Beck in mind – it sounds very much like a guitar riff. In fact, I initially thought it was an electric guitar altered with some sound effect. Instead, Wonder used a Clavinet, an electrically amplified clavichord, and created a cool sound nobody had ever heard before.

Stevie Wonder_Talking Book Vinyl Side 2

Superstition came to Wonder while touring with The Rolling Stones. “The first thing that I put down were the drums and then after that I put the Clavinet down, and really, I just starting singing the melody,” he told NPR. “I think that the reason that I talked about being superstitious is because I really didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in the different things that people say about breaking glasses or the number 13 is bad luck, and all those various things. And to those, I said, ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.'”

Wonder’s drums and the Clavinet, together with the tenor saxophone and trumpet parts played by Trevor Laurence and Steve Madaio, respectively, give Superstition a killer funk groove that immediately invites you to move. The tune, which became the album’s lead single, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973, and climbed to no. 11 in the UK in Feb that year. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it 73 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Stevie Wonder_Talking Book Vinyl Side 1

Another standout on the album is the opener, You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder gets some support on vocals from singers Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the second single from the album and Wonder’s third no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won Wonder the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder follows contemporary artists like Marvin Gave, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City. An excerpt: Your name is big brother/You say that you’re watching me on the tele/Seeing me go nowhere/Your name is big brother/You say that you’re tired of me protesting/Children die everyday/My name is nobody/But I can’t wait to see your face inside my door ooh…The song is also notable for Wonder’s use of a Moog bass synthesizer and a drum from West Africa – another testament to his fascination with new sounds.

Stevie Wonder

“I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”

Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album Music of My Mind. A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades, Clavinet, Moog bass synthesizer, TONTO synthesizer and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

The album has been well received by music critics. A Rolling Stone review by Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”

Here is a clip of a fantastic live performance of Superstition.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, YouTube