Bringing to Life the Magic of Steely Dan

An evening with The Royal Scam at Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, N.J.

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To people who know me and readers of the blog, it won’t come as a big surprise that Steely Dan is one of my all-time favorite bands. The amazing writing and craftsmanship of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created timeless music that is simply in a league of its own. While unfortunately I never got a chance to catch one of their shows, I probably came as closely to it as possible last night at the Trumpets Jazz Club in Montclair, N.J. with The Royal Scam. It was actually the second time I saw this outstanding Steely Dan tribute band.

Named after Steely Dan’s fifth studio album from 1976, The Royal Scam have been faithfully playing the music of Fagen and Becker for 25 years. Lead vocalist Michael Caputo, who does a beautiful job of capturing Fagen’s smooth voice, told the audience they spent the first year with rehearsals before going on the road. This careful prep and the band’s long-time live experience clearly showed. Their attention to the details of the music was incredible, a true labor of love. Another Steely Dan fan who was sitting close to me and has actually seen them put it this way: “They are spot on.” I couldn’t have said it better!

The Royal Scam

The intimate setting of the Trumpets Jazz Club was a perfect venue to enjoy the music of Steely Dan up close, and there was plenty of it. Between two sets, each lasting more than 90 minutes, The Royal Scam played a great mix of Steely Dan classics like Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Reelin’ In the Years, Hey Nineteen and Deacon Blues, and some deeper cuts I wasn’t as familiar with.

Since smartphone videos oftentimes have mediocre sound quality, I didn’t try to take any footage last night. Fortunately, there are some nice clips of the band on YouTube. Following is a selection.

First up: A cool medley of My Old School and Reelin’ In the Years, from Steely Dan’s second and first studio albums Countdown to Ecstasy (1973) and Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972), respectively. Watching this makes me want to see these guys again right away!

Hey Nineteen, from 1978’s Gaucho album. It appears this clip was captured during the same gig a few months ago in Linden, N.J., where I saw The Royal Scam of the first time.

Here’s another tune from the same concert: Rikki Don’t Lose That Number from Pretzel Logic (1974), which became Steely Dan’s biggest hit climbing all the way to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1974.

Kid Charlemagne, which is from Steely Dan’s fifth studio album from 1976, after which the tribute band is named. The guys do a beautiful job capturing the tune’s cool blend of funk, jazz and rock.

Dr. Wu from Katy Lied, the fourth study album Steely Dan released in 1975. It was the first record after Becker and Fagen had dissolved their standing touring band. In the studio, they already had started to increasingly rely on session musicians, a concept they would now also embrace for live performances.

This list would not be complete without Deacon Blues, which is perhaps the ultimate Steely Dan tune from Aja, their fantastic studio album from 1977. It was evident The Royal Scam dig that record just as much as I do. They played it in its entirety, sprinkling the tunes throughout the show.

In addition to Caputo, the band’s current line-up consists of Gino Amato (keyboards and synth programming), Don Regan (guitar),  Keith Droz (drums), Larry Chavana (bass), Joe Montini (saxophone) and vocalists Carla Culkin and Wendi Gordy. The Royal Scam will be back at Trumpets on March 10, 2018. Their schedule of upcoming shows is here on the band’s website, along with news and other info.

After they had played their final song of the night, Do It Again, Caputo thanked folks for coming out and supporting live music. He rightly pointed out that nowadays there are fewer and fewer places like Trumpets where people can enjoy great music up close. While I’ve been to many music events, typically, they haven’t been in an intimate setting. Last night was a great reminder that the music club experience is something that should be cherished.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Royal Scam website, YouTube

Little Steven’s “Soul-Meets-Rock Thing” Comes Alive

The man with the bandana and his Disciples of Soul play historic theater in Staten Island, N.Y.

Steven Van Zandt had not been on my radar screen as a solo artist until recently. Things changed in May when he released Soulfire, his first solo album since 1999. It quickly became one of my favorite new records this year, which I previously reviewed here. When I found out he was kicking off a tour at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., that show in late May – his only scheduled U.S. gig at the time – was already sold out! So I was glad that after a European leg, he brought the tour back to the U.S. Last Thursday, I was able to see his great show at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island, N.Y.

Unlike the Count Basie Theatre, the venue wasn’t sold out; in fact, I would say only half of the seats were taken, which was unfortunate. But it didn’t seem to have an impact. Little Steven and his top-notch band The Disciples of Soul delivered a powerful performance that lasted for close to two and a half hours. And while the audience wasn’t the biggest, people certainly were engaged.

The show kicked off with the soul classic Sweet Soul Music. Written by Arthur Conley and Otis Redding, the tune was first released by Conley in 1967. This was followed right away by Soulfire, the title track from Van Zandt’s above mentioned latest album. In a Rolling Stone interview ahead of the record’s release, Van Zandt noted he co-wrote the song with a member of Danish rock and soul band The Breakers, which first released it on their eponymous album in June 2011. Here’s a clip of Soulfire captured in Leipzig, Germany back in June.

Tunes from almost the entire Soulfire album were sprinkled throughout the show, and I have to say those were the tracks I generally liked the most. One of the highlights of the record that was also a standout of the show was Blues Is My Business, a great cover of an Etta James tune included on her 2003 album Let’s Roll. Here’s a cool clip.

Another great song from Soulfire and highlight of the set was Down And Out In New York City. Written by Bobbie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon, the track was first recorded by James Brown for the soundtrack album of the 1973 blaxploitation crime drama Black Cesar. The performance showcased the band’s terrific five-piece horn section, with each musician playing solo back-to-back. Here’s a nice clip of the tune recorded at another gig earlier this month.

In addition to Soulfire, Little Steven also played songs from his earlier solo records with The Disciples of Soul, especially their debut Men Without Women (1982) and Voice Of America (1984). Among these tunes was Angel Eyes, written by Van Zandt and included on the 1982 record.

And then there was of course Van Zandt’s previous work with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. He was a co-founding member and produced various of their records. The set included three tunes from that band: I’m Coming Back and I Don’t Want To Go Home, two Van Zandt tunes that also appear on the Soulfire album, and Love On The Wrong Side Of Town, which he co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen. Here is a clip of I Don’t Want To Go Home, the title track of Southside Johnny’s 1976’s studio debut. It was part of the encore.

This post would not be complete without further acknowledging the musicians of The Disciples of Soul, a mighty 14-piece and truly amazing band. The line-up includes Marc Ribler (guitar), Charley Drayton  (drums), Everett Bradley (percussion, backing vocals), Lowell “Banana” Levinger (piano, mandolin), Andy Burton (organ, strings, accordion), Jak Daley (bass), Eddie Manion (baritone saxophone), Stan Harrison (tenor saxophone, flute), Clark Gayton (trombone), Ravi Best (trumpet), Ron Tooley (trumpet), and backing vocalists Jessica Wagner, Erika Jerry and YahZarah.

According to the tour schedule posted on Little Steven’s web site, the band will continue touring the U.S. throughout October. In early November, they are scheduled to return to Europe for another six weeks, with shows in England, Scotland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Spain.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Rolling Stone, Little Steven’s website, YouTube

Another Weekend Brings Another Great Rock Festival to New Jersey

Colts Neck Rockfest 2017 featured close to 30 bands from the Garden State

To folks who know me and regular readers of the blog, it’s not a big revelation that I greatly enjoy going to music concerts. I’ve certainly been maximizing the live experience so far this year, especially with outdoor events over the summer, ranging from famous to not so famous artists. I must have seen more than 30 acts, and overall the quality has been pretty impressive. Most importantly, I had a great time, which is what music should be all about. And guess what? I’m still hungry for more!

The latest in a long series of outdoor events I visited happened yesterday: The Colts Neck Rockfest in Colts Neck, N.J. Until a few days ago, I had never heard of this annual music festival, even though the venue is fairly close to my house, and this was the 10th year they put it on. I found out about it through a Facebook post from Decade, a terrific Neil Young tribute band I first saw last weekend at Rock The Farm, announcing they would play Colts Neck Rockfest.

Colts Neck Rockfest 2017 Lineup

Unlike Rock The Farm, about which I previously posted here, the Colts Neck Rockfest focused less on tribute acts. Of the 28 bands that performed there Friday night and Saturday, only two fall into that category: Decade and Snow Dog, a tribute to Rush. Instead, most of the performers were cover bands, while the remaining acts mixed original material with covers.

Similar to Rock The Farm, there were relatively few people in the beginning. I suppose Saturday during the day, when many folks do their shopping and run other errands, is a tough proposition. When I got to Colts Neck in the early afternoon, there were perhaps 20 people (not counting the musicians). One guy I spotted right away was John Hathaway, the “Neil Young” from Decade.

Usually, I’m a bit reluctant to approach performers, figuring they may not necessarily like it, especially prior to a gig. But Decade’s performance wasn’t slated until much later in the afternoon, so I figured ‘what the heck.’ John turned out to be very nice guy. We ended up chatting for 15 minutes about his passion for Young, how long he has been doing this, his guitar, etc. I also exchanged a few words with the band’s great lead guitarist Joey Herr and learned his cool-looling Gibson SG is from ’71. It was a pleasant experience.

Like at Rock The Farm, the sets yesterday were very tight, so Decade once again didn’t have the time to switch to acoustic. But I learned they will do a much longer gig including an acoustic set at the end of October at The Stone Pony, a well-known music club in Asbury Park. That’s where artists like Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny started out. In fact, Southside Johnny and his Asbury Jukes played The Stone Pony in July. The city continues to be a stronghold in the local Jersey music scene.

Following I’d like to highlight four of the bands I saw yesterday, which I enjoyed in particular.

Sam Sims Band

The Sam Sims Band combines original music written by singer-songwriter Sam Sims with covers. I think their Facebook page nicely characterizes their style as “acoustic-based folk-rock with melodic guitar, soulful ukulele and authentic vocal lyrics.” According to the band’s website, Sims has been writing original songs since we was 14. The now 37-year-old, who plays ukele, guitar, dobro and harmonica, has released four studio albums and one single since 2009. Born in Huntsville, Ala., Sims currently resides in New Jersey. Other members of the band include Kyle Ward (guitar, backing vocals), Dimitris Kulaga (drums, percussion, backing vocals) and Aaron Manzo (bass, backing vocals).

The Sam Sims Band

To me the band’s set included two highlights: An incredible acoustic version of Dire Straits’ Sultans Of Swing, during which 21-year-old Ward absolutely killed it; and an original song, Positive Vibration. Apparently, Sims released this beautiful tune earlier this year as a single. Here’s a clip of the studio version.

Colossal Street Jam

Colossal Street Jam is a rock and blues band from Asbury Park, playing original music that reminds me a bit of The Black Crowes. According to Beato’s Blog, they initially started in the early ’90s and released two albums before they split in 1994. The band reunited in late 2013 and released its third album Living Free in October 2016. The current lineup of Colossal Street Jam consists of Gene Potts (vocals), Sal Marra (guitar, electric piano, vocals), Tony Flora (bass), Dave Halpern (drums, percussion) and Eric Safka (keyboards).

Colossal Street Jam

Since I didn’t know their music and they didn’t do much in terms of making announcements, I can only point to two songs they played yesterday. Both are from the Living Free album: Won’t Last This Way and Be Good To Yourself, a tune recorded by Scottish rock singer-songwriter Frankie Miller. Here’s a clip of Won’t Last This Way.

Xol Azul

Xol Azul is a Latin rock band that also hails from Asbury Park and was formed in 2002. They released an album of Spanish rock music in 2008 called Sale Et Xol. They also play covers in English and Spanish from other Latin artists like Santana and Mexican rock band Maná, as well as other bands. To this day, Xol Azul performs in its original lineup, which includes Gidalthi Guillen (bass, vocals), Gil Cruz (guitar), Fabian Rojas (keyboads) and Javier Medel (percussion).

Xol Azul

Yesterday’s set was a mix of English and Spanish tunes. Since I sadly know next to nothing about Spanish rock, predictably, the only songs I recognized were the English covers. Among others, those included Santana’s Evil Ways and Smooth, as well as Miss You by The Rolling Stones. Here’s a clip of a live performance of Evil Ways, one of my favorite early Santana tunes.

Moroccan Sheepherders

Moroccan Sheepherders is a very unique band, not only because of their peculiar name. They play classic rock jams and their own music. According to their Facebook page and website, the band’s origins date back to 1996, when Steve Warendorf (guitar) and Scott Burton (bass) met and shortly thereafter started making music with Craig Smith (drums) and Kyle Spendiff (percussion). The band’s website lists the following additional members: Herbi Freeman (vocals, percussion), Alan Manzo (vocals), Kendall Scott (keyboards), Adam Glenn (keyboards), Pat Murphy (vocals), Laura Johnson (vocals), Darren Johnson (vocals), Mike Sakowski (drums), Aaron Manzo (Bass) and Christopher Allen (saxophone). Apart from all of the aforementioned members, yesterday’s lineup included three additional horn players, making this act a true army of musicians.

Moroccan Shepherders

The band has released two albums with original music, Everybody Needs To Be Herd (2002) and Waves (2007). They describe this material as a mix of genres “ranging from tribal ambient trance to hard-core, blue-eyed blues-rock” – sounds pretty heavy to me. Last night was all about classic rock covers, which the band delivered with an incredible energy. Especially vocalist Laura Johnson was a standout to me. Some tunes of their great set included Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who), Feelin’ Stronger Every Day (Chicago), The Wanton Song (Led Zeppelin), So Lonely (The Police), Sympathy For The Devil (The Rolling Stones) and L.A. Woman (The Doors). Here’s a nice clip of Feelin’ Stronger Every Day, which was captured at Colts Neck Rockfest 2015. 

In addition to being Moroccan Sheepherders’ guitarist, Warendorf is also the founder of Colts Neck Rockfest. “I had the idea to have a little free concert with a few musical acts at Bucks Mill Park in Colts Neck,” he told Community Magazine during a recent interview. “It was basically a backyard barbecue held at the park with about 30 people in attendance. It’s interesting to note that this was the Moroccan Sheepherders’ very first NJ cover music gig, as we were an original act from 1996 until then.” The annual event that started out in 2008 with only a handful of bands has grown into an impressive festival. Assuming there will be a Colts Neck Rockfest 2018, I could definitely see myself go back there next year.

Sources: Sam Sims Facebook page and website, Colossal Street Jam Facebook page and website, Beato’s Blog, Xol Azul Facebook page and website, Moroccan Sheepherders Facebook page and website, Community Magazine, YouTube

Recreating Iconic Rock Festival That Never Was

Fourth Annual Rock the Farm brings 10 hours of rock & roll and tributes from Beatles to Young to Jersey Shore

In addition to seeing my rock & roll heroes live in action, I enjoy concerts featuring tribute bands to the music I love. While I wish I could go to shows of all the original acts, there are way too many music artists, not enough time and, let’s face it, not enough money – in particular nowadays with ticket prices oftentimes being out of control! To me tribute bands can be a great and very affordable way to address this conundrum. Yesterday, I got ten hours of exactly that, at the fourth annual Rock the Farm festival in Seaside Heights, N.J.

Also called Faux-Chella, an apparent clever allusion to the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, the event brought together an impressive lineup of tribute bands: One Fine Tapestry (Carole King), Mike Martin & The Beautiful Mess (Johnny Cash), Decade (Neil Young), Rainbow Full of Sound (Grateful Dead), The Weeklings (The Beatles), Light My Fire (The Doors), Hotel California  (Eagles), Glimmer Twins (The Rolling Stones), TUSK (Fleetwood Mac) and Echoes (Pink Floyd). Apart from these tribute acts, who performed on two main stages set up right next to each other, there were a few other bands playing on a side stage.

Faux-Chella 2017 Poster

The festival, which also featured food trucks and some merchandise stands, was organized by the CFC Loud N Clear Foundation, a New Jersey nonprofit community organization that provides support to individuals and families struggling from addiction to opioids, alcohol and other substances. All festival proceeds went to the group; in fact, over the course of the afternoon and evening, they raised more than $10,000 to support their programs! So it really was all about combining great music and a great cause – what’s not to love about it?

Following I’d like to highlight four of the above bands. In June, I already posted about the Glimmer Twins, an excellent Rolling Stones tribute, which is why I’m not including them here.

Decade

This New Jersey band primarily pays tribute to Neil Young. According to their Facebook page, the group includes John Hathaway (lead vocals, 6 and 12-string acoustic guitars, electric guitar, harmonica), Joey Herr (lead and rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Lou Perillo (bass, backing vocals), Steve Cunniff (keyboards, backing vocals) and Johnny Burke (drums, percussion). Hathaway, whose voice sounds remarkably similar to Young and who also has some visual resemblance, has studied his idol for the last 30 years.

Decade

“The guitar work and vocals have to be dead on or we will be dismissed as just another bunch of hacks,” Hathaway notes on the band’s Facebook page. “I want people to leave thinking they just saw the best thing next to Neil Young in person.” To this he could have added the reenactment of typical Young postures during live performances.

In addition to recreating Young’s music, Decade also plays select songs from other ’70s bands, such as America, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Eagles and The Allman Brothers. Yesterday was all focused on Young, more specifically his rock side – I assume in part because of time constraints. Some of the tunes they played included Like A Hurricane, The Loner, Ohio, Southern Men and Cinnamon Girl. To paraphrase the maestro, I was getting blown away! Here’s a clip of Decade I could find on YouTube.

Hotel California

Hotel California is an outstanding Eagles tribute band from Toronto, Canada. According to their website, they have done this for almost three decades and it definitely shows – the harmonies, the music, it’s all spot on! The current lineup includes Andy Lapointe (bass, vocals), Mike Dimoulas (electric guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboards, double-neck guitar, Talk Box, vocals), Dean Young (drums, vocals) and Rick Spyder (electric guitar, vocals).

Hotel California

The 60-minute set was packed with Eagles gems, such as One Of These Nights, Take It Easy, In The Long Run and, of course, Hotel California including the epic double lead guitar solo. They also threw in a couple of solo tunes from Joe Walsh (Rocky Mountain Way) and Don Henley (Dirty Laundry). The following statement from the band’s website nicely sums it up: “If you love the Eagles, then welcome to the Hotel California – you’ve just found the next best thing.” Think it’s an exaggeration? Take a look at this highlights reel. This is how they sounded yesterday as well.

TUSK

Hailing from Hunterdon County, N.J., TUSK is another true tribute labor of love. Similar to Hotel California and Decade, these guys have been faithfully capturing the music of Fleetwood Mac for a long time. According to the band’s website, their five members “have been making music together in various combinations and styles, from complete originals to covers, for over 30 years themselves.” TUSK is comprised of Kathy Phillips (vocals) as Stevie Nicks, Kim Williams (keyboards, vocals) as Christine McVie, Scott McDonald (guitars, vocals) as Lindsey Buckingham, Randy Atiglere (bass) as John McVie and Tom Nelson (drums) as Mick Fleetwood.

Tusk

In just over an hour, the band managed to play 10 Fleetwood Mac classics like The Chain, Rhiannon, Go Your Own Way and Don’t Stop, as well as Steve Nicks’ Seventeen. I have to say, their execution was pretty impressive, especially the harmonies, making TUSK one of the festival’s standouts. Again, a picture, or I should better say a clip, is worth more than a 1,000 words.

Echoes

Echoes, “the American Pink Floyd,” is a tribute band that according to their Facebook page is from Delaware and was founded in 1991. While recreating Pink Floyd’s music must be an ambitious undertaking, to say the least, I have to say it upfront: These guys did an amazing job! The band’s current lineup includes John Cassidy (drums, vocals), Kyle Frederick (bass), Dan Long (keyboards, sound effects, vocals), John Ratcliffe (vocals, guitar), William (Bill) Swezey (guitar, vocals), David Fox (guitar, lap steel), Andrew Bedell (saxophone), Michelle Sumler Hover (backing vocals), Chris Tuminello Duncan (backing vocals, keyboards) and Kat Pigliacampi (backing vocals).

Echoes.jpg

The close to 90-minute set featured Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Welcome To The Machine, Pigs (Three Different Ones) and what I thought was an interesting, less obvious choice I had to look up, since I didn’t recall the song’s title: Keep Talking, from The Division Bell album. But the highlight of the set was a performance of the entire Dark Side of the Moon, from the first note to the last.

While everybody on that stage was shining, the true standout moment came when backing vocalist Hover launched into the wordless vocal part of The Great Gig In the Sky, sung on the original by Clare Torry. Hover’s rendition of the part literally sent shivers down my spine, and I clearly wasn’t the only audience member who was wowed. Here’s a nice highlights reel from the band’s website.

Sources: Decade Facebook page, Hotel California website, TUSK website, Echoes Facebook page and website, YouTube

Blues, Shock and Rock Rumble New Jersey

Edgar Winter Band, Alice Cooper and Deep Purple blew off roof at PNC Bank Arts Center

What do you get when you have blues rocker Edgar Winter, Mr. Shock Rock Alice Cooper and hard rock pioneers Deep Purple on one ticket? Three-and-a-half hours of furious rock and possibly some hearing loss!

I cannot believe it took me more than 30 years after I first listened to Machine Head to see my favorite hard rock band live. Last night, that time finally came when Deep Purple played the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. Also on the ticket were Alice Cooper and Edgar Winter, who opened the four-hour night including breaks for stage changes.

From the very beginning, the Edgar Winter Band felt like an engine running on maximum rpm the entire time – almost as if Winter, who is the younger brother of electric blues legend Johnny Winter, wanted to bundle the energy of Alice Cooper’s and Deep Purple’s longer performances in a much shorter set. If that was indeed his goal, he succeeded!

Winter’s five-track set included the 1973 Edgar Winter Group hits Free Ride and Frankenstein, as well as covers of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Tobacco Road and Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo. He dedicated the last two tunes to his brother. In addition to Winter’s impressive vocal dynamics, he showcased his multi-instrumental skills, playing keyboards, saxophone and percussion. Here’s a clip of Tobacco Road captured during a performance in Atlanta earlier this month.

Next up was Alice Cooper. I only knew four of the sixteen songs he performed, but fortunately, there is setlist.fm. With a discography of 27 studio albums to date, Cooper had plenty of material he could draw from. The set spanned tacks from 1971’s Love It To Death until his last album Paranormal, which was released at the end of July.

Cooper’s gig started off with Brutal Planet, the title song of his 2000 studio album. This was followed by No More Mr. Nice Guy from his best-selling 1973 record Billion Dollar Babies, which hit no. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K. No More Mr. Nice Guy was the most successful of the four singles from the album, climbing to no. 25 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Here is a clip from a show in Nashville back in May.

The stand-out musician in Cooper’s band was lead guitarist Nita Strauss. The 30-year-old from Los Angeles is a quite a shredder. According to Wikipedia, one of her ancestors on her father’s side of the family is Johann Strauss II, the famous Austrian composer. Strauss, who became Cooper’s touring lead guitarist in 2014, was ranked no. 1 on Guitar World’s 10 Female Guitarists You Should Know. Here is a clip of a solo Strauss played during the show, which blends into Poison, another big hit for Cooper from his 18th studio album Trash, released in 1989.

Of course, a review of Cooper’s set wouldn’t be complete without the epic School’s Out, the title track from his fifth studio album, which appeared in June 1972. Perhaps not surprisingly, he kept it all the way until the very end as the encore. Here’s a clip from Appleton, WI from June.

And then it was finally time for Deep Purple, the main reason I was at last night’s show. The gig was part of the band’s Long Goodbye Tour, which supports their 20th and latest studio album Infinite. When Deep Purple announced the tour in December 2016, drummer Ian Paice told Heavyworlds, “It’ll be a long tour; it may be the last big tour, we don’t know…We haven’t made any plans, but it becomes obvious that you cannot tour the same way you did when you were 21.” In June 2016, Paice had a mini-stroke, which impacted his right hand and forced the band to cancel some shows in Scandinavia.

Last night, I have to say I thought Paice was in superb shape. There were no signs of any impairment. In fact, I was most impressed with him and keyboarder Don Airy. Singer Ian Gillan, on the other hand, seemed to be a bit subdued. At 72 years, he is the oldest member of the band. Plus, as a vocalist, changes are perhaps more obvious. Unlike a guitar you can tune, the voice is a natural instrument that changes over time. Gillan has been a singer for a whooping 55 years. Even though his voice isn’t quite what it used to be, it was still amazing to see him perform alongside his Machine Head compatriots Paice and bassist Roger Glover. Steve Morse, who at 63 is the youngest member of Deep Purple, is a very fine guitarist.

Deep Purple opened their set with two of their greatest songs, Highway Star and Fireball from Machine Head (1972) and Fireball (1971), respectively. I’ve always loved Highway Star’s organ and guitar solos on the studio version, which were played by the amazing Jon Lord and rock guitar virtuoso Ritchie Blackmore, respectively. Perhaps that version puts the bar impossibly high for a live performance. Here is a clip from a show earlier this month in Woodlands, Texas.

Machine Head was the best represented album in Deep Purple’s set. In addition to Highway Star, they played Lazy, Space Truckin and of course Smoke On The Water – frankly, I wouldn’t have minded if they had included all of the record’s tunes – each of them is great, in my opinion!

Songs from the Infinite album included Time For Bedlam and The Surprising. Deep Purple also played two tracks from 1984’s Perfect Strangers, Knocking At Your Back Door and the title song. I always thought Perfect Strangers, the first record after the band had disbanded in 1976, was a pretty good comeback album. Here is a clip of the title track, which was also captured during the above Woodlands concert.

Another great moment in Deep Purple’s set last night was Hush, which is from their 1968 debut Shades Of Deep Purple. By the way, Paice already was part of the band’s lineup then, making him the only member who has played on all Deep Purple records to date. Written by Joe South, Hush became the band’s first hit single climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a clip captured a few days ago during a concert in Mansfield, Mass.

Last but not least there is what is probably the band’s signature song featuring a riff every guitarist learns: Smoke On The Water. It was the final tune of Deep Purple’s set and a great end to a terrific rock night. Here is a clip recorded in May at a show in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, YouTube

An Evening of Joyful Blues with Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

Blues Legends Bring Good Time to Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley

A long three months finally came to an end last night. Shortly after Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ had issued their collaboration album TajMo in May, I found out about their All Around the World tour and got a ticket to what I knew I simply wouldn’t want to miss. It was a great decision!

Yesterday night, the two blues dynamos brought their show to the F.M. Kirby Center of the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The heart of the Wyoming Valley is not exactly New York or Chicago, but was well worth the 2.5-hour hike from my house through the Pocono Mountains!

Readers of the blog have probably noticed the blues has been on my mind frequently as of late. Undoubtedly, the excellent TajMo album, which I previously reviewed here, has something to do with it. In addition, I’ve been excited about other recent new releases in the blues and soul genres from artists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Casey James and Southern Avenue. Maybe Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ are right when they expressed full confidence that the blues will survive during a recent PBS NewsHour segment.

Jontavious Willis

Before I get to TajMo, I’d like to say few words about the opening act, a country blues artist called Jontavious Willis. According to his online bio, Mahal called Willis “my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind.” After having seen last night’s 30-minute performance by the 21-year-old from Greenville, Ga., I have to say this is not an exaggeration and yet another indication that the prospects of the blues look bright these days!

Willis, who is currently finishing his studies at Columbus State University, released his debut album Blue Metamorphosis in February this year. He’ll continue to tour with TajMo for many of their upcoming gigs in August and September. What this young artist got out of just an acoustic guitar was insane. It’s hard to find clips that do his exceptional solo acoustic skills full justice.

After Willis blew off the Kirby Center’s roof with his dynamic acoustic guitar performance, it was time for TajMo. From the very first moment they walked on stage, their joy of performing together was palpable. The set opened with Señor Blues, a jazz standard by Horace Silver, which Mahal covered on his 1999 studio album with the same title. This was followed by Don’t Leave Me Here, the first of five songs Mahal and Mo’ played from TajMo, and one of favorites from that album.

After six tunes with the full band, the two blues maestros took things “to the deep country blues,” as Mahal put it, playing Diving Duck Blues. Written by Sleepy John Estes, Mahal first recorded the track on his 1969 eponymous debut album. It is also included on TajMo and another highlight of that record. Watch the amazing chemistry between the two.

One of the highlights during the second half of the set was The Worst Is Yet to Come. Co-written by Mo’, Heather Donovan and Pete Sallis, Mo included the tune on 2014’s BLUESAmericana, his 12th studio album. I wonder whether Mo’ got the inspiration for the song’s title from the American songbook 1959 standard The Best Is Yet to Come, which became one of Frank Sinatra’s popular tunes in the mid-’60s. Unfortunately, the only TajMo clip I could find is cut off in the beginning.

Ironically, The Worst Is Yet to Come was followed by one of my longtime favorite blues tunes: She Caught the Katy And Left Me a Mule to Ride. Prior to that I only had known the great version by The Blues Brothers. It turns out Mahal co-wrote this classic with Yank Rachell and included it on this second studio album The Natch’s Blues, which was released in 1968.

The last song I’d like to highlight is All Around the World, which also appears on TajMo and was the closer of the 20-song regular set. The tune perfectly sums up the positive vibes Mahal and Mo’ sent to the audience throughout the show. People were up on their feet and made some noise, so they came back for one encore: Soul, yet another tune from their collaboration album.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about the top-notch band that backed up Mahal and Mo’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the names of the musicians, but here are a few things I remember. The drummer comes from Memphis, Tenn., former home of the storied Stax Records label. The bassist, who is a lefty, hails from Washington, D.C. The fantastic horn section consists of a male trumpet player and female saxophonist. Mo’ called her out for her amazing sound. The keyboarder, who among others played a seductively roaring Hammond, was top-rate as well. Last but not least, there were two special background vocalists: Mahal’s daughters, Deva and Zoe. And they were not there just for alibi – these ladies can sing!

TajMo are taking their tour next to Wheeling, W.Va.; and Richmond, Va. before hitting New York City’s SummerStage in Central Park this Sunday, where they will perform a free show. I’m tempted to go there to see them again! The tour continues throughout the remainder of August and September all the way into October, when it concludes in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on October 21.

Sources: PBS NewsHour, Jontavious Willis website, Setlist.fm, Facebook, TajMo web site, YouTube

The Eagles Rise Again at Classic West

Band delivers powerful tribute to Glenn Frey

Following Glenn Frey’s untimely death in January 2016 at the age of 67, the future of The Eagles looked uncertain. After all, Frey led the Southern California band together with Don Henley and co-wrote most of their songs with him. So it was a fair question to ask whether anyone could step into his shoes. Last night, fans got some answers during The Eagles’ first regular live concert after Frey’s death, conducted at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles at part of The Classic West music festival.

Of course, to close observers it wasn’t much of a surprise. At the end of May, the Los Angeles Times had reported Deacon Frey, Glenn’s 24-year-old son, and country artist Vince Gill, one of Frey’s close friends, would join The Eagles to share responsibilities for replacing Frey.

Deacon Frey

“Bringing Deacon in was my idea,” Henley told the Times. “I think of the guild system, which in both Eastern and Western cultures is a centuries-old tradition of the father passing down the trade to his son, and to me, that makes perfect moral and ethical sense. The primary thing is I think Glenn would be good with it — with both of these guys. I think he’d go, ‘That’s the perfect way to do this.’ ”

Deacon added he grew up singing his father’s songs. “The first songs I learned on guitar were ‘Take It Easy’ and ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling.’ He was always very supportive and very encouraging of my music and my love for music.”

Vince Gill

During the same interview, a beaming Gill commented, “In my mind, I always thought I’d have made a good Eagle…but in a million years, I never would have seen this coming. It’s pretty surreal. I turned 60 recently, and to get to be a part of this amazing legacy of songs, that’s the greatest part of all this for me.”

While Deacon’s and Gill’s participation in last night’s show had been announced, the appearance of another music artist was a surprise. Bob Seger, a long-time friend of Frey and a collaborator, joined the band to sing Heartache Tonight. The song choice was not a coincidence – Seger had co-written the tune with Henley, Frey and J.D. Souther and provided (non-credited) background vocals on the recording.

Following are a few clips from last night’s concert.

Take It Easy featuring Deacon Frey

Tequila Sunrise featuring Vince Gill

Peaceful Easy Feeling featuring Deacon Frey

New Kid in Town featuring Vince Gill

Heartache Tonight featuring Bob Seger

And then there is of course the ultimate signature Eagles tune, Hotel California, which was the first encore:

While media coverage of last night’s show has been favorable, I’ve no doubt critical voices will emerge, questioning the motives behind the revival of The Eagles. After all, in the wake of Frey’s death, Henley himself had said during various interviews he thought this was the end of the band. Sure, one could take a cynical view and argue this would also mean the end of lucrative concert tours and merchandise, so it’s ultimately a money grab. I do see it a bit differently.

While I’m not naive and realize financial incentives are likely part of the equation here, especially in today’s music business where records no longer sell the way they used to, I also think it’s important to acknowledge The Eagles did not only consist of Henley and Frey. Let’s not forgot about Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit. If one member of a four-piece band is no longer around, this should not automatically seal the fate of the band.

Just like I thought it was perfectly fine for Pink Floyd to continue after they had parted ways with Roger Waters, I feel it’s okay for The Eagles to go on without Glenn Frey. Sure, he’ll be dearly missed and it’s big shoes to fill, especially for Deacon. But while the 24-year-old essentially still is an unproven music artist, he deserves a lot of credit for what must have been a high-pressure performance last night. Gill is the complete opposite. He’s had a 30-year-plus career with 19 studio albums and multiple Country Music Association and Grammy Awards – more than any other country male artist.

It remains to be seen whether Deacon Fry and Vince Gill will become permanent replacements for Glenn. For now, The Eagles are soaring again, which most fans will appreciate.

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Setlist.fm, YouTube