Documentary provides commentary from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and studio musicians who were involved in the recording of Steely Dan’s masterpiece
With my Steely Dan show (okay, make that Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan band) coming up tonight, not surprisingly, Fagen and his former partner in crime Walter Becker have been on my mind. As I usually do prior to concerts, I was browsing YouTube last night to get a peek from the band’s recent performances. Since I’m admittedly a bit of a music geek, of course, I’ve also checked setlist.fm and have a good idea of what to expect. Suddenly, I stumbled across The Making Of Aja, a fascinating film that documents the recording of what I feel is Steely Dan’s absolute masterpiece and certainly one of my favorite records of all time.
Surprisingly, there is very little public information about the film. According to IMDb, it appeared in 1999 and was produced by British television director Alan Lewens. The documentary’s official title is Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja. It breaks down each of the magnificent tracks on the record, featuring interviews with Becker, Fagen, Aja producer Gary Katz, guitarists Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Rick Marotta and other musicians involved in the cumbersome process of recording the album.
Even if you don’t love Steely Dan’s music, I think you’ll still enjoy this documentary, as long as you like music craftsmanship and have at least some degree of interest in how great music is created. Enough of the upfront talking, or I should better say writing, and time to get to some clips!
Here’s the section of the film that discusses the songs Black Cow and Home At Last. It starts with Fagen doing a hilarious rap singing uptown, baby, uptown, baby, alluding to the track Deja Vu by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (frankly, no idea about these guys!), who sampled a snippet of Black Cow. Among others, he and Fagen also discuss the meaning of the title; other than that it was a soft drink with ice cream that was popular when they were kids, the two music geniuses don’t appear to be absolutely sure what was in the beverage!
The next film excerpt is about Deacon Blues, my favorite Dan tune. Among others, Becker and Fagen isolate different tracks of the song on the mixing board, which I find particularly fascinating. Also very telling is the following commentary by session guitarist Parks: “One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they are after. They are after something you wanna listen to over and over again. So we would work past the perfection point until it became natural – until it sounded almost improvised.” That’s an interesting observation. You’d think that doing the same parts over and over again would be the equivalent of over-rehearsing, which to me sounds like the opposite of improvisation!
The last section I’d like to highlight is about the album’s closer Josie. It starts off with bassist Rainey discussing the song’s bass line – something I’m particularly drawn to as a former bass player. Fagen and Becker also discuss their reliance on session musicians. “Around the time we made Aja we had figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically” explains Fagen. “We realized that we needed session musicians who had a larger pallet of things they could do and who were also good readers because they were coming in cold.”
Have I whet your appetite? Well, in case you’d like to watch the remainder of the documentary and don’t mind Japanese subtitles, here’s a clip of what appears to be the entire film or most of it.
Southern jam rockers and Avett Brothers bring their summer tour to central NJ
When I told a good friend from Germany the other day that I was going to see Gov’t Mule for a Dark Side Of The Mule show, he had the same initial reaction I had a few weeks ago: What’s a southern rock band got to with Pink Floyd? And why would such distinguished musicians with plenty of own material devote an entire gig to the British psychedelic rockers? Well, because not only does Mule dig great music, but they also like to celebrate it during their own shows. In fact, they always have done so since they were founded in late 1994, though thus far, Pink Floyd is the only band to whom they dedicated an entire show.
As I previously wrote, Mule first introduced the concept in 2008 in Boston when they added a second set to their set of original tunes, which solely consisted of Floyd covers. They repeated it at the Mountain Jam music festival in 2015. And now the band is doing this dedicated show for the third time during a short co-headlining summer tour with The Avett Brothers – something I didn’t want to miss as a huge Pink Floyd fan, especially since one of gigs was happening right in my neck of the woods at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. last night. Based on Mule’s corresponding live album, my expectations were high – and boy did they deliver!
But first things first. The evening was opened by American rock band The Magpie Salute, which was formed in October 2016 by guitarist Rich Robinson, a co-founding member of The Black Crowes. He pretty much co-wrote all of their songs with his brother and lead vocalist Chris Robinson. I didn’t know any of the band’s songs but liked what I heard. Their remaining current lineup includes two other former Black Crows members, Marc Ford (lead guitar, vocals) and Sven Pipien (bass, backing vocals), as well as John Hogg (vocals, percussion), Matt Slocum (keyboards) and Joe Magistro (drums). The Magpie Salute currently have one live album out from 2017 and are set to release their studio debut High Water I on August 18, 2018. I’ll definitely keep that on my radar screen.
Next came The Avett Brothers, a band that except for its name I hadn’t known. To get a sense of what to expect, I checked setlist.fm for the first date of the tour. It didn’t help much, since they made many changes to their set last night! The band’s core members include brothers and multi-instrumentalists Seth (vocals, guitar, etc.) and Scott Avett (vocals, banjo, etc.), Bob Crawford (double bass, bass, etc.) and Joe Kwon (backing vocals, cello, piano, etc.). The current touring lineup is complemented by Mike Marsh (drums) and Tania Elizabeth (violin, vocals, kazoo).
The origins of The Avett Brothers date back to the late 1990s when Seth’s high school band Margo combined with Scott’s college rock outfit Nemo. After Nemo had released three albums, Seth and Scott started The Avett Brothers as a side project, playing acoustic music with some friends. Eventually, this resulted in the release of an EP, The Avett Bros., in 2000. Their fist full-fledged studio album Country Was appeared in 2002. To date, the band has released eight additional studio records, three additional EPs and four live albums. I was impressed with the craftsmanship and warmth they used to deliver their music, which blends folk, bluegrass, Americana and indie rock. I didn’t record any video, but here’s a YouTube clip of a tune they did last night: Down With The Shine, from The Carpenter, their seventh studio album released in September 2012.
And then it was time for Mule to rule, and boy they certainly did! While like The Avett Brothers they mixed things up compared to the tour’s opening night, they kept the same format.
After kicking off their set with two original songs, it was on to mighty Pink Floyd. Last night, the original tunes included Thorazine Shuffle and Banks Of The Deep End, from the Dose (February 1998) and The Deep End, Vol. 1 (October 2001) studio albums, respectively. Here’s Thorazine Shuffle, a co-write by Mule co-founding members Warren Haynes and Matt Abts.
Following their two original songs, Mule launched into a transitional instrumental that blended into One Of These Days, from Meddle. Floyd’s sixth studio album from October 1971 happens to be one of my favorites. All for a sudden, it felt like the band had kicked up the intensity by a few notches. The song’s bass line came across like a furious jack hammer – since I didn’t anticipate it and didn’t want to start recording after it had started, unfortunately, I missed capturing that one.
After this powerful rendition of the first Pink Floyd tune of the night, Mule kept their foot on the gas. Next came Echoes, another gem from Meddle and perhaps my all-time favorite Floyd track. Again I didn’t record that one, figuring if my arms wouldn’t fall off holding my smartphone, the device would probably run low on battery power, given the length of the tune! Next it was on to a series of songs from Dark Side Of The Moon, my favorite Floyd album released in March 1973. Here’s The Great Gig In The Sky, featuring Mule’s outstanding backing vocalists
In addition to Dark Side Of Moon and Meddle, Mule also heavily drew from Wish You Were Here, another Floyd gem and the follow-on to Dark Side, which came out in September 1975. Here’s Welcome To The Machine.
Before playing some additional tunes from the Dark Side and Wish You Were Here albums, Mule threw in Nile Song from More, Floyd’s first soundtrack and their third studio release from June 1969. Then it was time for the cash register to ring with Money, another track from Dark Side. Again, I thought the band did a great job with the tune, especially the saxophonist who killed it!
The epic Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V) rounded out Mule’s regular set. Like on the Dark Side Of The Mule album that I previously reviewed here, this was the track where the band took the most artistic freedom, especially Haynes on lead guitar. And just like on that record, I thought he did a nice job, so the deviations didn’t bother me at all. No Pink Floyd show would be complete without Wish You Were, which the band threw in as the encore.
As mentioned at the outset, I thought Mule’s show last night was outstanding. But, as I also noted before, Dark Side Of The Mule is not a note-by-note rendition of Floyd’s music. I imagine not all hard core Floyd fans may like the artistic freedom Mule occasionally takes. As a former hobby musician, I can fully appreciate that artists want to add a little bit of their own flavor when playing covers. If you feel the same and dig Pink Floyd, this show is for you, if you live in the right corners of the country. There are only four remaining dates: Xfinity Center, Mansfield, Mass. (today, Jul 14); Ruoff Home Mortgage Music Center, Noblesville, Ind. (Aug 23); Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park, IL (Aug 24); and DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston, MI (Aug 25). But there is always hope for additional dates, though Mule’s summer 2018 tour schedule looks dense through the second half of September.
Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Mule official website, YouTube
“One of my first solo shows was in the Wang Theater, then called the Music Hall,” wrote Neil Young on his website in May, talking about his 2018 solo tour that officially ended last night with the second of two dates at the landmark venue in Boston’s Theatre District. “It’s a real beauty folks – a chapel of soul and music. I hope it still sounds as good as it did then and that I do too!” While I wasn’t around when Young played Music Hall in January 1971, I saw him at Wang Theatre on Wednesday night, the first of his two concerts there, and he surely sounded amazing to me!
Young was right. The venue is pretty impressive. Take a closer look at the above photo, and you can see the rich ornaments and decorative painting. In addition to its looks, he certainly also well remembered the Wang Theatre’s acoustic, which was great.
While it must be about 40 years ago that Young entered my radar screen with Heart Of Gold, I had never been to one of his shows. When I read about his solo tour a few months ago and noticed it would bring him to Boston, it didn’t take long for me to decide that seeing him was worth a five-hour drive from my house, especially given the tour only had six dates: Two in each Chicago and Boston, and one in each Detroit and St. Louis.
But before I further get to Young, I’d like to acknowledge William Prince, a folk and country singer-songwriter, who like Young hails from Canada. Punctually at 8:00 PM, he walked on stage with just an acoustic guitar and opened the night. Prince is a member of the Pegius First Nation from Manitoba.
In 2015, he released his debut album Earthly Days, for which he won a Western Canadian Music Award for Aboriginal Artist of the Year in 2016 and the 2017 the Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. From that album, here’s Breathless. The look and feel of the performance, which apparently was captured in December, is very similar to Wednesday night. I thought his voice and guitar-playing sounded really nice. Visit his website for more information.
And then it was time for Young. To get an idea what to expect, I checked the previous shows from the tour on setlist.fm. I noticed the sets were relatively constant and included a mix of well-known songs and other tunes that at least to me were deeper cuts. A friend of mine, who is a Neil Young connoisseur and the lead vocalist in an excellent Neil Young tribute band, thought it was a selection for longtime fans.
The stage setup looked a little like a music workshop. It featured areas with different instruments, including an array of acoustic guitars, a semi-hollow electric guitar, two grand pianos and two organs. Young also had multiple harmonicas on hand. During the show, he shared anecdotes about most of the instruments. For example, one of the grand pianos was from the 19th century, and the bottom had been burned during a fire. Young maintained this gave it a very unique sound, adding this tour was the first time he took it on the road. He also pointed to guitars that had once been owned by Stephen Stills and Hank Williams.
Time for some music. I tried capturing some of the songs, and while the audio came out okay, the quality of the video varies quite a bit. The latter was due to challenging lighting conditions and my seat up on the balcony in the back of the theater. There was also what looked like an illuminated stripe in the background above the stage. I’m wondering whether this may have been done on purpose to discourage taking videos, which officially was strictly forbidden.
While I get they don’t want flash photography, I generally find these “no video rules” complete nonsense. Unless you walk in with a professional camera that enables you to record footage you could sell, what damage are you going to do with clips taken with a smartphone? On the contrary, in my opinion, taking and posting such clips on Facebook or elsewhere actually helps promote the artist. Okay, I’m stopping going off on a tangent now. The following is a combination of my own clips and footage from other recent solo gigs.
First up: Pocahontas, a song by Young that first appeared on the Rust Never Sleeps live album from July 1979. Initially, he recorded a version of the tune in the mid-70s for Chrome Dreams, a then-planned but unreleased album.
Ohio was the only Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tune Wednesday night and one of two songs Young played on the electric guitar. Written by him in the wake of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970, the track was released by CSNY as a single in June that year. It was also included on the band’s 4 Way Street live album from April 1971 and the studio compilation So Far, released in August 1974. The tune also appeared on Young’s solo compilation albums Decade (Oct 1977) and Greatest Hits (Nov 2004).
A highlight of the show and perhaps my favorite moment of the night was After The Gold Rush. Young played the title track of his third studio album from September 1970 on a pipe organ. The church-like sound was just incredible. He slightly updated the lyrics by singing, Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century/Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century. The performance was incredibly powerful and gave me the goosebumps!
Among Young’s more recent tunes was Love And War. He recorded the song for his 30th studio album Le Noise, which appeared in September 2010. This clip was captured at his June 28 show in St. Louis.
Young finished his regular set with two gems from Harvest, his fourth studio album released in February 1972: The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold. Unfortunately, the following clip of Needle, shot in Chicago on July 1, is cut in the beginning but otherwise 10 times better than my attempt to film it.
Here’s the mighty Heart Of Gold. Young may be getting old (though he sounded great!), but not the song.
Young came back for one encore: Tumbleweed, a tune from the deluxe edition of his 34th studio album Storytone from November 2014. He performed it with a ukulele. This clip is from the above St. Louis clip.
For now, Young’s second gig in Boston last night marked the final show of his solo tour. In September, he is scheduled to perform back-to-back at Farm Aid (Hartfort, Conn., Sep 22) and, together with Promise Of The Real, at another Willie Nelson event (Saratoga, N.Y., Sep 23).
Sources: Wikipedia, Neil Young official website, William Prince official website, setlist.fm, YouTube
Until last Sunday, I had never heard of a band with the somewhat fearsome sounding name Predator Dub Assassins. I had seen them billed as a reggae outfit to perform at a free summer concert in the park type of event in Ocean Branch, N.J. Listening to Jamaican grooves on a lovely summer evening sounded like a great proposition, so I went there together with my wife.
We arrived a bit late and ended up sitting on a park bench a good deal away from the stage where it almost felt like listening to background music. At some point, I recognized Stir It Up and thought the lead vocalist sounded pretty similar to the great Bob Marley himself – pretty cool! We kept listening, and I liked the singer’s voice, as well as the sound and groove of the band, though I didn’t recognize any of the songs.
About 10 to 15 minutes prior to the end of the concert, we got up and moved a little closer toward the stage. Suddenly, the band started playing a cover of the Rolling Stones’Miss You. While admittedly it’s not my favorite Stones tune, I thought giving it a reggae groove was a brilliant idea – frankly, to me it sounded better than the disco-influenced original! Finally, these guys had my full attention – I wish this would have happened a bit earlier, but between chatting with my wife and slurping an iced coffee, I guess I was a bit distracted!
Before the band finished, the vocalist mentioned something about a new CD. So I looked them up in iTunes. And, there it was, Songs In The Key Of Sea (clever title!), along with numerous older albums and singles, going all the way back to 2005. Obviously, this meant I had just listened to a band that wasn’t exactly a newcomer. Now I was really curious!
It turns out that Predator Dub Assassins is one of the bands of Timothy Boyce, a.k.a. P-Dub. There isn’t exactly a ton of public information out on this artist, especially given how long he has been around. His Facebook page doesn’t reveal much. According to his website, P-Dub’s unique brand of reggae music fuses classic rock and pop elements with contemporary island sounds. Not only has he released more than 12 full-length albums since 2005, but he has also worked as an instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and producer with numerous other artists like Akon, Sean Kingston and Paul Wall – pretty much all names I admittedly don’t know.
According to a recent interview he gave to Irie magazine, P-Dub initially got into music by working as a sound engineer at a local recording studio close to his home town of Sea Bright, N.J. The owner, a 55-year-old Kingstonian named George, attracted many musicians from the West Indies. Eventually, George ended up forming a band with P-Dub as the core member on vocals and guitar.
While I’ve listened to Bob Marley since my teenage years and always liked his music, I still wouldn’t consider reggae to be part of my core wheelhouse. So P-Dub is not the type of music I usually listen to. But once I started doing so, there was something that drew me in immediately. I think it’s his great voice and songs with seductive melodies and nice grooves – to me it’s the perfect summer music!
Unlike on most of P-Dub’s previous records, the material on Songs In The Key Of Sea goes beyond reggae and is a fusion of various styles. In a related note on his website, he explains, “I did things a lot differently this time. Instead of sticking to the musical rules of the reggae genre, I just let the songs do whatever they wanted. If a song popped out sounding funky, I let it. If a waltz popped its head in the door, I welcomed it in and this eclectic album resulted. The reggae is definitely in there. Its one of the main elements of the stew but you may have to look harder to find it on some tunes, while on others it’s more than obvious.”
Time for some music.
Things start off with Pleasant Picnic, which has a clear reggae feel to it – pretty much what I expected, based on the above concert and from listening into some of P-Dub’s earlier records.
Next up: Special. I like the funky groove. The beginning reminds me a bit of Listen To The Music by The Doobie Brothers, perhaps in part since I’m going to see these guys next week, so I guess they are on my mind.
Another tune I like is Good Day, a more acoustic-oriented song.
Chico Was The Man has an interesting groove. I also like the flute, which is a bit reminiscent of Jethro Tull.
On Your Prayer things become a more rock-oriented. To me this tune has a Lenny Kravitz vibe.
The last track I’d like to highlight is Rockets Are Supposed To Fly. In this song, P-Dub’s reggae influence becomes more obvious again.
Songs In The Key Of Sea was released on June 1. It is available on iTunes, Amazon and Bandcamp. According to P-Dub’s website, he wanted to create a 60s garage band approach to recording a reggae band. ” While some tracks are certainly more layered than others on this album, every single song was cut live in the studio, with the band playing together. I only used three mics on the drums and I let it bleed. I wound up loving the results and I think you will too.” Indeed!
As a huge fan of The Beatles, I simply did not want to ignore that Ringo Starr turned 78 years today. Yes, when you think of the Fab Four, it’s fair to say John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison come to mind first due to their amazing songwriting and singing. And, yes, Ringo is no John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker (thank goodness, I don’t think The Beatles would have lasted very long with a volatile character like Baker, as much as a drum genius as he was!). But I also firmly believe The Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without Ringo. And, frankly, based on many accolades he has received from the likes of Dave Grohl, Jim Keltner, Steve Smith and others, Ringo certainly isn’t a shabby drummer!
In this post I don’t want to focus on recapping Ringo’s life, which I did on a couple of previous occasions, for example here. Instead, I’d like to celebrate his birthday in a way that is more fun than reading stuff: Seeing Sir Starkey in action, based on recent YouTube clips.
Let’s kick it off with a great rockabilly tune recorded by Carl Perkins in December 1956: Matchbox. Ringo shows us how it’s done at age 78 – sorry, he was actually only 77 years old at the time of that performance! Steve Lukather and Gregg Rolie are throwing in some nice guitar and keyboard solos!
It Don’t Come Easy was Ringo’s first single from April 1971, released following the breakup of The Beatles. It’s one of the few tunes Ringo doesn’t only sing but for which he also has sole writing credits, though he did have a little help from his friend and former band mate George!
Don’t Pass Me By is Ringo’s first solo composition and among the handful of tunes he got to sing while he was with The Beatles. According to Wikipedia, he first introduced the song to John, Paul and George after he had joined the band in 1962. Eventually, it was recorded during four separate sessions in June and July 1968 and appeared on The Beatles, aka The White Album, which came out in November that year. BTW, you just got to love Ringo’s good sense of humor when announcing the track. The German audience clearly enjoyed it!
Here’s another another fun tune: Boys! Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, and originally recorded by the Shirelles in November 1960, the song was first included by The Beatles on Please Please Me, their debut album from March 1963. I also dig the version that’s on the At The Hollywood Bowl live album, released in May 1977.
Of course, no Ringo playlist would be complete without With A Little Help From My Friends. Credited to Lennon and McCartney, the song appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from May 1967 and was the only tune on that album, featuring Ringo on vocals. In the below clip, he surely did have a little help from some fabulous musicians. Like all of the other footage in this post, it shows Ringo during recent performances with his All Starr Band. Very fittingly, they’re also throwing in a little bit of Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance at the end.
In addition to the aforementioned Lukather (guitar, vocals) and Rolie (keyboards, vocals), the current lineup of the All Starr Band features Colin Hay (guitar, vocals), Graham Gouldman (bass, vocals), Warren Ham (percussion and saxophone) and Gregg Bissonette (drums). Ringo and the band are currently on the road and are about to wrap up touring Europe. They will next bring their show to the U.S. starting Sep 1 in Tulsa, Olka. According to the current schedule, dates include New York (Sep 13), Boston (Sep 17) and Chicago (Sep 22), among others. The U.S. leg of the tour will wrap up in L.A. on Sep 29. Now, that’s another show that’s tempting to me!
Sources: Wikipedia, Ringo Starr official website, YouTube
With my Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan show being out less than one week, both bands are increasingly on my mind. Earlier today, I also saw on Facebook that 46 years ago today on July 1, 1972, The Doobies released their second studio album Toulouse Street, which included the above gem as the opener. Other standouts on the record are Rockin’ Down The Highway and Jesus Is Just Alright.
Listen To The Music was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston. Together with Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals) he remains as a co-founding member of The Doobies’ current lineup. Multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined in early 1979, is the band’s third permanent member. The current touring lineup also features Bill Payne (keyboards), Marc Russo (saxophone), Ed Tooth (drums) and John Cowan (bass, vocals).
Based on reviews I’ve seen, The Doobies are getting high marks for sounding great and including their best known songs in their set. That’s pretty much the same I recall from seeing them once before some 18-20 years ago. Can’t wait to listen to the music again!
Sources: Wikipedia, The Doobie Brothers official website, YouTube