The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Santana Celebrates Africa On Seductive New Studio Album

Deep in the jungle, beyond the reach of greed/You hear the voices of spirits/With their frequency of light/Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night/Communicating with plants, animals and mankind/Affirming the universal truth…All and everything was conceived here in Africa/The cradle of civilization. These words, spoken by Carlos Santana, are the intro to his new album Africa Speaks that was released yesterday. After having listened to it for a couple of times, I’m pretty excited about the infectious grooves and Carlos’ guitar-playing, which continues to amaze me. This record is made for summer!

Appearing on Concord Records, Africa Speaks is Santana’s 25th studio album and his first with producer Rick Rubin. It was recorded together with Santana’s band at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The record also features two female singers with African heritage: Spanish vocalist María Concepción Balboa Buika, who goes by Buika, and on one track British singer Laura Mvula. Santana’s website characterizes the music as inspired by the melodies, sounds and rhythms of Africa, but in many ways, this is a classic Santana album combining Latin Afro-Cuban rhythms with Carlos’ mighty signature guitar sound.

Carlos Santana

In January, Santana told this to Rolling Stone about the upcoming album, which then was supposed to be titled Global Revelation: “I went to Rick to see if he would, as Miles Davis would say, ‘Would you have eyes to do something with me? I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the opener Africa Speaks. The tune has a bit of a mysterious vibe to it. I also like how it builds. And once Santana comes in with his great guitar sound, man, the track just takes off!

Oye Este Mi Canto starts with a smooth laid back Latin jazz feel to it, with Buika shining on vocals. Then check out what happens at around 2 minutes and 28 seconds: Things pick up, with Santana coming in playing a great wah-wah guitar solo. And all for a sudden, it feels like going back 50 years to Woodstock. Then at around 3 minutes and 50 seconds, the song resumes its initial groove – so cool!

Here’s Blue Skies, the track featuring Laura Mvula, who is sharing vocals with Buika. Not sure why Apple Music and YouTube don’t mention her – either an embarrassing oversight or outright disrespectful!

Paraísos Quemados is one of my favorite tunes on the album. I just dig the funky groove and the excellent bassline by Benny Rietveld. As a Hammond fan, I also like what David K. Mathews is doing on the keys. Oh, and did I mention Carlos on guitar?

The last track I’d like to highlight is Breaking Down The Door, which according to a Rolling Stone review is a cover of the Calypso Rose song Abatina, written by Manu Chao. Another nice tune that perhaps is a bit more conventional compared to most other tracks that have more of a fusion feel to it.

This review would be incomplete without acknowledging Santana’s excellent backing band. In addition to the above mentioned bassist and keyboarder Rietveld and Mathews, respectively, the line-up features Carlos’ wife Cindy Blackman Santana (drums),  Tommy Anthony (guitars and vocals), Andy Vargas and Ray Greene (both vocals), as well as percussionists Karl Perazzo and Paoli Mejías.

So what does Rick Rubin think about the album and its making? “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said during a filmed conversation. “Hearing it on record is one thing, but being in the room and watching it happen was another. I couldn’t imagine anyone who loves music sitting in the position I was in watching this not being blown away.”

“Carlos asked to meet and I had never met him before. He said he wanted to go into to the studio and start recording. And I said, ‘well, let’s talk about the songs and let’s listen to songs’ and he said, ‘well, I don’t really have any songs.’ And I said, ‘okay, interesting,’ and he said, ‘well, I have an idea.’ He played me some pieces of music and then he sent me an iPod filled with African music. And he said, ‘live with this for a little bit and then we’ll talk about it.’ I lived with it and it was fantastic!”

“And he said, ‘I think that’s the energy of what I wanna do, and I wanna start by jamming with the band, using these kinds of rhythms and see where it goes.’ Very unusual to work for me in that way. Usually, the song comes first, and the studio is more about documenting the thing we already know how it’s gonna go. In in this case, it was really, we went to the studio completely blank, jamming on these instrumental pieces, and it was really great – really, really great!” You can watch the full clip here.

I have to say this album has reignited my enthusiasm about Carlos Santana and makes me feel like seeing again.  There would definitely be opportunity this year. Later this month, Santana is embarking on a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his 1999 Supernatural studio album. While it definitely resulted in a resurgence of his career, I’m not particularly fond of this record and much prefer his first three albums with the classic Santana band. Santana is also playing two Woodstock-related festivals in August, which I likely can’t afford. But he told People he is planning a series of dates next year to support his new album. Now, that may be something worthwhile looking into.

Sources: Wikipedia, Santana website, Rolling Stone, People, YouTube