What I’ve Been Listening to: The Moon Jocks/The Moon Jocks

Until yesterday, I had never heard of The Moon Jocks. That’s when my music streaming provider served them up as part of a new music mix. I just love to live in my ’60s and ’70s bubble, so admittedly, my expectations about this playlist were quite moderate. Then that tune Have You came on, which is the band’s latest single that was released two weeks ago. There was something about this retro funky sound and the vocals that grabbed me, so I looked up the band and, voila, got to their eponymous debut album, which appeared last June.

To start with, who are these guys? Unfortunately, there is very little information out there. Their Facebook page indicates they are from Philly and provides a link to their website, which is pretty bare-bones as well. Their bio reads, “The Moon Jocks are a Philadelphia-based trio specializing in delivering chill vibes straight to your ear drums.” It also lists their members: Nick DiGiacomo (guitar), Lou DiGiacomo (drums) and David O’Day (vocals). The website also has a tab about the debut album. One can stream it there, which is kind of cool, and also see the credits. So with the scarcity of information, let some music do the talking!

Here’s the opener Take Control. In addition to the above members, the band relied on a bassist named Mike Palardy on this track and most of the other eight songs on the album. O’Day provides both lead and backing vocals on most tunes. I don’t know who writes and arranges their music, but the soft funky wah-wah guitar and the vocals sound pretty cool to me. Check it out!

None of That brings more of that funky guitar. I also like the drum part, which has a ’70s vibe to it – almost sounds a bit like a disco drum! In fact, I would say, retro is an accurate characterization for The Moon Jocks’ overall sound. It’s one of the few tunes where Nick also plays bass.

Next up: Headspace, a largely instrumental piece.

The last track I’d like to call out is called Time Is Electric. It’s another groovy tune.

The album was recorded at Catapult Sound in North Wales, Pa., which is in the Philadephia vicinity. Sound engineer Brett Kull assisted the band with mixing and also did the mastering.

I’m always happy to come across new music I like, and I really dig The Moon Jocks’ sound. What I will say is the music on the album does become a bit repetitive and predictable after listening to the first few tunes. But let’s be honest here: It’s not like my favorite band of all time, i.e., The Beatles, didn’t sound repetitive, especially in their early phase. This is a pretty good studio debut by what looks to me are still fairly young musicians. I’m sure we’ll hear more from these guys.

Sources: The Moon Jocks website; YouTube

 

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 20

January 20 presented various memorable moments in music history, from surf rock to The Fab Four to Dylan to an all-star concert to celebrate the first official Martin Luther King Day. Let’s get to it!

1962: Dick Dale (born Richard Anthony Monsour) and The Del-Tones entered the Billboard Hot 100 with the instrumental Let’s Go Trippin‘ at no. 60, marking the first surf rock song to chart. While Dale became known as The King of the Surf Guitar, he never reached the success and popularity of fellow surf rockers like Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. In addition to being a surf music pioneer, Dale was also instrumental in advancing guitar amplifier technology. Working with guitar manufacturer Fender, he helped develop customized amplifiers, including the first 100-watt amp. Dale who was of Lebanese descent incorporated Middle Eastern music scales in his playing and experimented with reverb, which both became key elements of his surf rock sound. He also had an unusual technique, playing a left-handed guitar upside down, i.e., without restringing the instrument.

1964: Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ second U.S. album and the first on Capitol Records was released. While the cover cheerfully stated, “The First Album by England’s Phenomenal Pop Combo,” the record actually was the second U.S. release. Ten days prior to its appearance, Vee-Jay Records issued the Fab Four’s actual U.S. debut Introducing… The Beatles. Originally, that album had been scheduled for July 1963. Still, Meet the Beatles beat Introducing…The Beatles in the charts, entering the Billboard 200 one week prior to the latter and peaking at no. 1, denying the top spot to Vee-Jay’s release that got stuck at no. 2. While the cover of Meet the Beatles looked almost identical to the UK album With the Beatles, the song line-up on each record was different. Here’s I Saw Her Standing There, a tune that in the UK already had appeared on The Beatles’ debut Please Please Me and therefore was not on With the Beatles.

1968: John Fred & and his Playboy Band topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Judy in Disguise (With Glasses). Co-written by John Fred Gourrier and Andrew Bernard, the song was the only hit for the U.S. band. The title was a play on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles. Apparently, when he first heard the Beatles tune, Gourrier understood the words as Lucy in disguise with diamonds. Ironically, Judy in Disguise knocked Beatles song Hello, Goodbye out of the Billboard Hot 100 top position. The tune also became a no. 1 hit in Australia, Germany, South Africa and Switzerland, and climbed to no. 3 in Canada, Ireland and the UK. Well, John Fred & and his Playboy Band may have hit it big time only once, but at least they made it count!

1975: Bob Dylan released his 15th studio album Blood on the Tracks. After receiving mixed reviews initially, the album has since been acclaimed as one of Dylan’s greatest. Isn’t it funny how music critics oftentimes change their minds? Apparently, people were faster to embrace the record. By March 1, 1975, Blood on the Tracks stood at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album also topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand and climbed to no. 3 in the UK. In 2003, it was ranked at no. 16 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all Time. Here’s Shelter From the Storm.

1986: Stevie Wonder commemorated the first official celebration of Martin Luther King Day with a star-studded concert in Washington, D.C. For many years, Wonder had supported the idea for the national holiday, which first had been proposed in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. But sadly it took Congress many years to embrace the idea. During the Carter administration, a bill to establish Martin Luther King Day was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives. This prompted Wonder to write the song Happy Birthday and release it as a single in September 1980. After Congress received petitions in excess of six million signatures, the Senate and the House passed legislation, which was signed by President Regan in November 1983. The first official observance of Martin Luther King Day took three more years. Here’s a clip of the above concert’s finale, featuring Diana Ross and Wonder, along with many other artists.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day in Music; Songfacts History Calendar; YouTube

My Playlist: Thin Lizzy

While I wouldn’t call myself an all-out Thin Lizzy fan, I dig many of the Irish rock band’s songs I know and definitely feel they would have deserved getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Also, how many rock bands can you name that were fronted by a kick-ass black bassist and lead vocalist? Wikipedia calls Phil Lynott the “first black Irishman to achieve commercial success in the field of rock music.” While I’m not sure how many other black rock artists come from Ireland, Thin Lizzy were more than just a multi-cultural band. They also transcended religious division, featuring both Catholic and Protestant members during the period of the Northern Ireland conflict. Before getting to some of Thin Lizzy’s music, a few words about their history are in order.

Thin Lizzy were founded in December 1969, when former Them members guitarist Eric Bell and keyboard player Eric Wrixon met drummer Brian Downey and vocalist and songwriter Phil Lynott in a Dublin pub. Downey and Lynott were performing there with their band Orphanage. Wrixon exited before Thin Lizzy released their debut single The Farmer. After the band (then a trio) had signed with Decca Records at the end of 1970, they recorded their eponymous debut album that appeared in April 1971. Subsequently, except for Lynott and Downey, the band had many different members that notably included guitarist Gary Moore from 1974 to 1977 and 1978 to 1979.

Thin Lizzy with Gary Moore
Thin Lizzy’s 1979 lineup with Gary Moore (from left): Brian Downey, Scott Gorham, Phil Lynott and Moore

In November 1972, Thin Lizzy scored their first hit with the non-album single Whiskey in the Jar, an Irish traditional song that had first been popularized in 1968 by Irish folk band The Dubliners. I still remember that song received a good deal of radio play in Germany during the ’70s and for a long time was the only Thin Lizzy tune I knew. After their initial success, the band lost momentum, and it took them three more years to have their first charting album in the UK, Fighting, released in September 1975. The follow-on Jailbreak from March 1976 finally brought commercial breakthrough and chart success in both the U.K. and the U.S. where the album peaked at no. 18 on the Billboard 200.

Until their breakup in August 1983, Thin Lizzy recorded six more studio albums. Lynott who had released two solo records in 1980 and 1982 went on to form rock band Grand Slam. They didn’t manage to secure a recording contract and folded in late 1984. On January 4, 1986, Lynott passed away at the age of 36 from pneumonia and heart failure due to septicemia. In 1996, John Sykes, one of the guitarists in Thin Lizzy’s final lineup, decided to revive the band as a tribute. They conducted various tours over the years until Sykes’ departure in June 2009. Shortly thereafter, Scott Gorham who had played guitar with Thin Lizzy since 1974, started putting together another lineup. In 2012, Thin Lizzy offspring Black Star Riders was formed to record new material. Thin Lizzy has continued to gig occasionally, most recently last summer. Time for some music!

Let’s kick it off with Whiskey in the Jar. The song’s great twin lead guitar parts were one of the features that attracted me to Thin Lizzy. I still dig that sound. Apparently, the band wasn’t happy about Decca’s release of their cover of the tune, feeling it did not represent their sound.

Here’s a nice rocker appropriately titled The Rocker. Co-written by Bell, Downey and Lynott, the song was included on Vagabonds of the Western World, Thin Lizzy’s third studio album that came out in November 1973 in the wake of the Whiskey in the Jar single. Unlike that tune, The Rocker only charted in Ireland where it went to no. 14.

Next up: Rosalie, the great opener to Thin Lizzy’s fifth studio album Fighting. The track was written by Bob Seger who first recorded it on his 1973 album Back in ’72.

The follow-on album Jailbreak became Thin Lizzy’s best-selling record and also their highest-charting in the U.S. Undoubtedly, that performance was fueled by the classic The Boys Are Back in Town, which remain a staple on classic rock rock to this day. Written by Lynott, the band’s most successful single is another beautiful example of their seductive twin lead guitar sound.

The soulful Dancing in the Moonlight (It’s Caught Me in Its Spotlight) is another Lynott tune I dig. It appeared on Thin Lizzy’s eighth studio album Bad Reputation from September 1977. The saxophone part was played by Supertramp saxophonist John Helliwell. Call me crazy, I can hear some influence from Irish fellow artist Van Morrison.

Black Rose: A Rock Legend, released in April 1979, was the only Thin Lizzy album featuring Gary Moore despite his two stints with the band. Here’s opener and lead single Waiting for an Alibi written by Lynott. I like the tune’s driving bass line, and these twin lead guitar parts never get boring. It became one of the band’s most successful singles, reaching no. 9 in the UK and no. 6 in Ireland.

How about two more songs? First is Killer on the Loose, another Lynott composition released in September 1980, just ahead of Thin Lizzy’s 10th studio album Chinatown that appeared the following month. Perhaps not surprisingly, the song’s lyrics and video, in which Lynott took the persona of a Jack-the-Ripper-type serial killer, created controversy. It probably didn’t help that the single coincided with a string of murders by an English serial killer called the Yorkshire Ripper. But one thing is for sure – chart performance didn’t suffer. The band scored another top 10 hit in the UK and a no. 5 in Ireland.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Cold Sweat. Co-written by Lynott and Lizzy guitarist John Sykes, it was included in the band’s final studio record Thunder and Lightning from March 1983. Here’s a clip from Thin Lizzy’s supporting farewell tour.

Sources: Wikipedia; Thin Lizzy website; YouTube

Baby, You Can Drive My Car, and Yes, You’re Gonna Be a Star!

Since my recent post about Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman, the above creatively borrowed and somewhat adjusted phrase had been stuck in my head, just like the catchy song. The first part of the statement is true, the second half is perhaps debatable. But while this British rock band only had one real hit, there’s no doubt in my mind Thunderclap Newman was more than just a one-hit-wonder.

As a fan of The Who, I’m intrigued by Pete Townshend’s role in the band’s history – in fact, without Townshend, there would have been no Thunderclap Newman. He brought the band’s core members together in late 1968/early 1969: Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Speedy Keen (born John David Percy Keen), Dixieland jazz pianist Thunderclap Newman (born Andrew Lawrence Newman) and lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (born James McCulloch). They are pictured in that order from left to right in the above photo.

Something in the Air Single

Interestingly, prior to the band’s formation, Keen had been The Who’s chauffeur and shared an apartment with Townshend. He also had written Armenia In the Sky, the opener to The Who’s third studio album The Who Sell Out from December 1967. Apparently, Townshend was impressed with the songwriting talents of Keen who had played in different bands since 1964, so he decided to introduce him to Newman and McCulloch. Townshend was also instrumental in getting the band a contract with Track Records, an independent label established by The Who’s managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.

The first song Thunderclap Newman recorded was their big hit Something in the Air written by Keen. The sessions took place at Townshend’s home studio. He also produced the single and played bass on the recording under the pseudonym Bijou Drains. Released in May 1969, Something in the Air topped the UK Singles Chart only three weeks after its appearance, replacing The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko. The tune’s original title was Revolution, but it was changed because The Beatles already had a song with that title, which had come out in 1968.

Thunderclap Newman_Hollywood Dream

Following the success of Something in the Air, an initially reluctant Thunderclap Newman agreed to go on the road. They brought in Jim Pitman-Avery (bass) and Jack McCulloch (drums), Jimmy’s older brother, to support Deep Purple on a 26-date tour of England and Scotland from July to August 1969. After the tour, Pitman-Avery and Jack McCulloch exited and formed country-rock band Wild Country, leaving Thunderclap Newman with their three core members. Keen, Newman and McCulloch went back into the studio and recorded Hollywood Dream, their only studio album.

Like Something in the Air, Townshend played a key role, producing Hollywood Dream and again playing bass under the name of Bijou Drains. And while the final track Something in the Air undoubtedly is the hit, there are other gems on this album. Let’s kick things off with the nice opener Hollywood #1, which like most of the other tracks was written by Keen.

Here’s Open the Door Homer, a great cover of a Bob Dylan song. If I see it correctly, Dylan did not release the tune until 1975 when he included it on The Basement Tapes, a collection of tracks he had recorded in 1967, mostly with backing by The Band. In particular, I dig Keen’s singing on this tune.

Next up: Accidents, another original tune written by Keen. There’s a lot going on in this more than nine-minute track, including some great piano and guitar work. In fact, as much as I dig Something in the AirAccidents is the album’s tue standout to me. A shorter version was released separately and peaked at no. 46 on the UK Singles Chart in June 1970, becoming Thunderclap Newman’s only other single to make the charts.

The last song I’d like to call out is the title track. To readers who know my affection for vocals, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I chose to highlight an instrumental. Well, it’s not that I don’t like instrumentals – after all, I’m a big fan of Pink Floyd’s ’70s albums that are filled with instrumental parts. But after a while, I simply feel the need to hear some vocals! In part, I also chose Hollywood Dream since it was co-written by the McCulloch brothers, making it the only original that wasn’t penned by Keen. BTW, Jimmy McCulloch was only 15 years when he recorded this tune with the band.

In early 1971, Thunderclap Newman brought in Australian musicians Roger Felice (drums) and Ronnie Peel (bass) to create a new touring lineup. This was followed by another tour with Deep Purple through England and Scotland between January and April 1971. And then it was suddenly all over for the band. Why? Referencing a 1972 interview Newman gave to the New Musical Express (now known as NME), Wikipedia hints to personal friction between Newman and Keen. It’s unfortunate when egos clash, but certainly not unheard of, especially in music!

Keen went on to record two solo albums, Previous Convictions (1973) and Y’ Know Wot I Mean? (1975), and also played as a session musician with Rod Stewart, The Mission and Kenny G. Sadly, he passed away from heart failure at the age of 62 on March 12, 2002.

Newman also recorded a solo album, Rainbow, which appeared in 1971. Other than that he was “was musically dormant and worked as an electrician, until he put together a new version of Thunderclap Newman in 2010,” according to an obituary in The Guardian. In addition to Newman, the band’s new line-up featured Tony Stubbings (bass), Nick Johnson (lead guitar), Mark Brzezicki (drums) and Pete Townshend’s nephew Josh Townshend (rhythm guitar and vocals). Shortly thereafter, the band released Beyond Hollywood, an album of studio and live tracks of old Thunderclap Newman songs. In 2011, they toured the UK with Big Country. The last two gigs listed on the band’s official website are from 2012. Newman died on March 29, 2016 at the age of 73.

Jimmy McCulloch formed his own group in October 1971 and also played guitar in various other bands, most importantly Paul McCartney’s Wings, which he joined in August 1974. After exiting Wings in September 1977, McCullogh joined the reformed Small Faces. Another own band and a few additional stints followed. On September 27, 1979, McCulloch was found dead, apparently having died from a heart attack attributed to morphine and alcohol poisoning. He was only 26 years old.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Guardian; YouTube

Clips & Pix: The Doobie Brothers/Rockin’ Down the Highway

The news this morning that The Doobie Brothers are among the 2020 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made me happy. This band represents two worlds I generally dig: Great ’70s rock and precious multi-part vocal harmonies. While I didn’t have time to write a longer post, at least I wanted to celebrate the occasion with a nice clip of one of my favorite Doobie tunes: Rockin’ Down the Highway.

This great footage was captured in July 2004 at Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia. The Doobies also recorded an album from that gig in October of the same year, titled Live at Wolf Trap. Written by Tom Johnston, the great rocker first appeared on the band’s sophomore album Toulouse Street released in July 1972.

Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of The Doobie Brothers are Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals), the only member who has been in all of the band’s line-ups from the beginning; additional founding members Tom Johnston (guitar, vocals) and John Hartman (drums); as well as members who joined later, including John McFee (guitar, vocals), Michael Hossack (drums, percussion), Tiran Porter (bass, vocals), Keith Knudsen (drums, backing vocals), Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter (guitar) and Michael McDonald (keyboards, vocals).

2020 promises to be an eventful year for The Dobbie Brothers. In addition to the induction, the band will release an EP with five new songs in the spring, as Simmons told Rolling Stone today. The Doobies will also tour North America to celebrate their 50th anniversary, for which current core members Simmons, Johnston and McFee reunite with McDonald. The 50-plus-date tour is set to kick off in West Plam Beach, Fla. on June 9. Some of the other dates include Nashville, Tenn. (June 17); Mansfield, Mass. (July 3); Toronto, Canada (July 19); Indianapolis (July 30); St. Louis (Aug 14); Denver (Aug 30); Los Angeles (Sep 18); and Houston (Oct 10). The final currently announced gig is Memphis, Tenn. (Oct 17). The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; Rolling Stone; Doobie Brothers website; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Something in the Air

Boy, do I love this catchy tune, and now it’s stuck in my head! I heard it for the first time by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on their 1993 Greatest Hits compilation. Because it sounds so much like he could have written it, for a long time, I thought Something in the Air was a Tom Petty song! The original version was first released in May 1969 by Thunderclap Newman, a British band with an intriguing history that involves Pete Townshend who founded and produced them – something I might explore in a separate post. Townshend also played bass on the recording under the alias Bijou Drains. The tune was written by John David Percy “Speedy” Keen, Townshend’s former chauffeur who also penned Armenia in the City, a song The Who included on their 1967 album The Who Sell Out. Something In The Air topped the UK Singles Chart in July 1969 and was the sole no. 1 hit for Thunderclap Newman who only recorded one study album before they disbanded in April 1971.

Since I really dig the Tom Petty cover, here it is, taken from The Live Anthology, released in November 2009. This fantastic box set nicely illustrates that in addition to great original songs, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a top-notch cover band – a potential fun topic for yet another post!

And, coz’ three make a charm, let’s throw in yet another version of the song that until today I had no idea existed: The Dukes of September. Formed in 2010, this American “supergroup” included Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs. Essentially, it was a revival of The New York Rock and Soul Revue, a music project produced by Fagen’s then-future wife Libby Titus. Led by Fagen, the project involved a series of concerts between 1989 and 1992, which also featured McDonald, Scaggs and various other prominent music artists who performed a mix of their own songs and covers.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 12

This may still be a new year and we’re even in a new decade, but some things don’t change, at least not on this blog. One of them is this recurring rock music history feature. By now, I guess I must have put together more than 30 installments; but as a music nerd, this tells me I have more than 300 other dates left to cover! Let’s start with January 12 and the debut single by a then-teenaged Etta James.

1955: The first single by Etta James, The Wallflower, was released. It was co-written by James, who was only 16 years at the time, together with Johnny Otis and Hank Ballard. While due to the lyrics the song’s original version was considered “too risque” to be played on pop radio, it became a hit on the Billboard R&B Chart, which it topped for four weeks. The same year, the tune was covered as Dance With Me, Henry by Georgia Gibbs for the pop market. James released her own cover version of Dance With Me, Henry in 1958. Here’s the scandalous original tune, for which James received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2008.

1968: George Harrison recorded the origins of what became The Inner Light at a studio in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai). He had traveled there to record the soundtrack for Wonderwall, a psychedelic picture by Joe Massot co-starring 21-year-old Jane Birkin. According to The Beatles Bible, by January 12, Harrison had almost completed the work on the soundtrack and found himself with additional studio time he did not want to go to waste. He decided to record some additional ragas, one of which formed the basis for The Inner Light. The tune was completed at London’s Abbey Road Studios in early February of 1968 and appeared as the B-side to the single Lady Madonna. I think it’s the most beautiful Indian music-influenced tune Harrison wrote. I also love the lines, The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows. This is how I often feel when it comes to exploring music!

1969: Led Zeppelin released their mighty eponymous debut album in the U.S. The recording took place at Olympic Studios in London in September and October that year. Since the band had not secured a contract yet, the album was self-produced by Jimmy Page. He also paid the £1,782 for the 36 hours of studio time it took to complete the sessions. A key reason for the short recording time was a well-rehearsed band that had just performed as the New Yardbirds during a Scandinavian tour. Much of the music was recorded live in-studio. While Led Zeppelin initially received some poor reviews, the album was an instant chart success, peaking at no. 10 on the Billboard 200 and climbing to no. 6 on the UK Albums Chart where it spent a total of 71 weeks. Here’s the great opener Good Times Bad Times, which is credited to Page, John Paul Jones and Jon Bonham.

1974: The Steve Miller Band abracadabra scored their first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with The Joker. Co-written by Eddie Curtis, Ahmet Ertegün and Steve Miller, the tune also was the title track of the band’s 8th studio album that appeared in October 1973. Ertegün is best-known as co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, and I admittedly had no idea he also was involved in writing classic blues and pop songs! The farther one travels…More than 16 years later in September 1990, The Joker again flew like an eagle and rose to the top in the UK, after the tune had been used in a Levi’s TV ad. According to Wikipedia, this makes it the single with the longest gap between transatlantic chart-toppers – wow, it’s amazing what people track!

1993: The eighth annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place in Los Angeles. Honored inductees included Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, Etta James, Van Morrison, Sly & the Family Stone, Ruth Brown and Cream, who reunited for the event for the first time in 23 years. And what would the spectacle be without some drama? John Fogerty refused to perform with his former CCR bandmates Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. But fans still got to hear some CCR music. Fogerty recruited session musicians on drums and bass, and also got some help from Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson. Here’s Cream’s performance of Sunshine of Your Love from that night. Boy, did Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker sound mighty sweet! While apparently Bruce and Baker were interested in touring at the time, solo projects and I imagine some other issues prevented reunion shows until early May 2005 when Cream performed a series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfascts Music History Calendar; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Larkin Poe/Venom & Faith

A few weeks ago, Facebook served me up a video of two young women rocking out: One with an electric guitar, the other one with a pedal steel. Apart from compelling musicianship, the clip featured great harmony vocals, but what really stood out to me was their infectious raw energy. More recently, I watched another clip of 28-year-old Rebecca Lovell and her two-year older sister Megan Lovell, who since January 2010 have performed as Larkin Poe. This prompted me to listen to Venom & Faith, an intriguing album with a stripped back sound blending a strong dose of traditional blues and roots with more modern elements, such as electronic drum loops and handclaps.

Rebecca and Megan, who originally hail from Georgia and now live in Nashville, Tenn. started out as teenagers in 2005 with their eldest sister Jessica Lovell in a bluegrass/Americana formation called The Lovell Sisters. They released two studio records and one live album before disbanding in January 2010. Rebecca and Megan regrouped as Larkin Poe immediately thereafter. They got the name from their great-great-great-grandfather who according to this review in Glide Magazine was a distant cousin to Edgar Allan Poe.

Released in November 2018, Venom & Faith is Larkin Poe’s fourth and most recent studio album. Wikipedia also lists Tarka Layman (bass) and Kevin McGowan (drums) as band members, though I assume the two session musicians are part of the touring lineup. All Venom & Faith reviews I’ve seen only mention Rebecca and Megan, along with slide guitarist Tyler Bryant and recording engineer Roger Alan Nichols with whom the sisters co-produced the album.

Larkin Poe
Rebecca (l) and Megan Lovell

The stripped-back approach Larkin Poe used on this album largely mirrors their YouTube “Tip o’ The Hat” video series, where they take mostly well-known tunes, such as Aerosmith’s Pink, Steelers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town, and create their own bare-bones versions. Check it out, these clips are fun to watch!

Let’s get to some music from Venom & Faith. The opener Sometimes is one of only two covers on the record. Co-written by Alan Lomax and folk and gospel singer Bessie Jones, the tune was first released by Jones in 1960.

Beach Blonde Bottle Blues is one of the album’s eight original tunes.

Next up: Mississippi. It features the above mentioned Tylor Bryant on resonator slide guitar.

Here’s Blue Ridge Mountains, another nice bluesy track.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Hard Times Killing Floor Blues, the only other cover on the record. The song was written by delta blues artist Skip James in 1932.

I think Venom & Faith is a pretty cool album overall by two highly talented musicians. Perhaps my only point of criticism is the lack of real drums. The reliance on handclaps and drum loops does get a bit monotonous after a while. “For our previous records, we wanted to put our best foot forward, so there was a lot more production,” Megan told Guitar Player. You want to take out your mistakes, layer the guitars and double the vocals, and before you know it, you’ve covered up all the humanity in your performances…[For Venom & Faith] we didn’t want to smooth over the imperfections or the raw emotion, because often those are the very things listeners wind up loving.” Fair point!

Added Rebecca, “The production process was about how modern sounds could work with roots music to create a hybrid. We very much wanted to show that we are a female-fronted blues band in the 21st century.”

Venom & Faith has been nominated for the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. I see great potential in Larkin Poe and look forward to more great music from these highly skilled and dynamic ladies.

Sources: Wikipedia; Glide Magazine; Guitar Player; YouTube

You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Carole King/New Year’s Day

Everybody makes a dream this time of year
From now on it’s gonna be good for you
All your friends and family
Gather ’round in peace and harmony…

I came across the above clip this morning and felt it was the perfect tune to post on New Year’s Day. Carole King recorded this beautiful song for her holiday album A Holiday Carole, released in November 2011.

The track was co-written by Louise Goffin, the daughter of Carole and Jerry Goffin, and English songwriter, musician and record producer Guy Chambers. Louise, who not only has a striking resemblance to her mother but is a singer-songwriter as well, also produced the album, which received a Grammy nomination.

…And it could be the time of your life
Everything’s gonna turn out alright
It’ll be okay, in every way makin’ it better
It’s New Year’s Day…

Such uplifting words – dig it! Hope you will as well.

Happy New Year!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube