Sheryl Crow Goes Out With Big Bang On Final Full-Length Studio Album

Threads features collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks and others from her music bucket list

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“Well, I have loved the tradition of making records. I grew up holding the actual physical record and poring over the album notes and just dreaming about doing what I’m doing now. And with technology, it’s a little bit like putting the toothpaste back into the tube. We can’t go back and expect — particularly young people — to listen to albums from top to bottom. It’s almost a dying art form in that people cherry-pick songs and put them on playlists. So, I don’t know that the listening audience really ever gets the sense of the full artistic statement.” (Sheryl Crow)

So this it it for Sheryl Crow? After nine Grammys and more than 50 million albums sold and at less than 60 years of age? Yes and no. The singer-songwriter, who originally hails from Kennett, Mo., is not planning to release any additional full-fledged studio albums. But it should be a consolation to fans that Crow isn’t retiring from recording and touring. What the above Crow told NPR means is the realization that the music business has changed dramatically since she burst on the scene in August 1993 with Tuesday Night Music Club. Back then, selling records still was a rewarding proposition. Today in the age of music streaming not so much.

Sheryl Crow

“We had a great experience last year with Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You,” Crow further explained in that NPR interview, referring to one of the tunes from Threads, which were released ahead of the album that appeared today. “We put out a song that meant something at that moment in the immediacy and didn’t wait for a full length record. And it was kind of liberating to be able to do that. So I think that’s what I’ll aim for. Then, if people want to put together an album, they can do that; they can put together a compilation or their own playlist. But I like the idea of being able to write in the immediate and putting it out when it really matters.”

Sounds like a valid point to me, though I feel the last sentence of Crow’s statement in the first paragraph of the post represents the essence of her decision. In a modern social media-driven, instant gratification culture, most listeners no longer have the attention span to enjoy entire albums. As much as it pains me to admit this, I’m not entirely immune to this mentality either. There’s also the reality that most albums are not like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tapestry and Aja, to name three of my all-time favorite records, where pretty much every song is a gem you really want. Of course, that has always been the case. In the pre-streaming era, you’d still buy the vinyl record or CD, if it had at least two our three great songs. Today, with iTunes, Spotify, etc. it’s very easy to pick and choose only the tracks you like without ever buying an album.

Okay, let’s get to Threads. Saying Crow’s eleventh studio album features an impressive array of guests would be an understatement. Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Emmylou Harris and James Taylor, to name some, are all friends who as NPR put it were “her bucket list collaborators.” With some like Richards, Nicks, Harris and Clapton, Crow had worked before over her 18-year recording career. The catchy opener Prove You Wrong, which was co-written by Crow, Al Andersen and Leslie Satcher and features Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, is an anthem to strong women. Apple Music in their “liner notes” quotes Crow: “Stevie was one of my first calls. Not only has she been a great friend and collaborator over the years, but she was one of the original inspirations for doing what I do…Inviting Maren in just made sense. She’s sort of like a godchild to Stevie and I – super fierce, loves that connection with her audience, and truly has her own perspective on life.”

Since I already previously covered Live Wire, a nice bluesy track for which Crow teamed up with Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, I’m going to skip it in this post and move on to Beware Of Darkness. The cover of the George Harrison tune is one of the gems on the album. And, yes, I may be a bit biased here! 🙂 It first appeared on his 1970 solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass. Quite appropriately, one of the guests on Crow’s recording is Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton. The two other artists are Sting and Brandi Carlile. According to the Apple Music liner notes, “…I wanted to record this as a tribute to George, but also as a message to my children: To let them know while they’re living through what we’re going through, they must witness people either moving towards light or towards darkness. I think that explains a lot about why we are where we are…”

Next up: Cross Creek Road, an original tune Crow co-wrote with long-time collaborator Jeff Trott. The called out guests on this recording include Lukas Nelson and Neil Young. Nelson is sharing vocals, while Young contributes acoustic and electric guitars. A closer look also reveals Don Henley as one of the backing vocalists – interesting why he wasn’t called out. In any case, the track is a nice mid-tempo roots-oriented rocker.

Now we come to The Worst. Blame Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the cheerful title of this tune, which The Rolling Stones recorded for their 1994 studio album Voodoo Lounge. Richards also is a guest in the current version of the country-oriented tune, providing acoustic, electric and nylon-string guitars, bass and piano, as well as some backing vocals. Frankly, I had no idea Richards plays bass and piano! Here’s another enlightening Crow quote from Apple Music: “Not a lot of people know this, but in the late ’80s, I was a school teacher in St. Louis and went to see the taping of [the music documentary] Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll with Chuck Berry and Keith Richards…Cut to 20 years later, I’m recording with Keith Richards, with Steve Jordan producing, so you never now what can happen to a small town girl – a town with three stoplights. It’s amazing what can happen in your life.” Apparently, Crow misspoke, it’s actually 30 years down the road from the above movie.

The next song I’d like to highlight is Still The Good Old Days, which Crow co-wrote with Joe Walsh. He also provides electric slide guitar Walsh kickass style, acoustic guitar and shares vocals. This is a great tune. Here’s the official video, which is also fun to watch.

I’d like to end this review on a quieter note with a beautiful track titled Nobody’s Perfect. Co-written by Crow and Trott, the recording features Emmylou Harris. Gee, the more I hear from this lady, the more I realize I should check her out more closely. “It’s such a joy to sing with her, and she, for me, is my great hope with my career,” Crow told NPR. “I look at what she’s done and who she has constantly been and who she’s become — how she’s still curious, still growing, still rocking, still out there fighting for the things she believes in and still looks like herself and is just beautiful. For me to get to sing with her and to have our voices blend is, I mean, that’s my kind of high.” Harris is 72, while Crow turned 57 this February.

Reflecting on her last studio album overall, Crow in a statement on her website said, “I became inspired to record an album of musical experiences with the legacy artists who inspired me to want to be a great songwriter, musician, and producer. It is a celebration with them, and a tribute to them. Just as importantly, I wanted to work with younger artists on this record, who I believe will pick up the torch and continue to light the way for humanity with their stories and their songs for many years to come. Their music inspires me every day.” I would say, if you officially declare an album is your final full-length record, Threads is a great way to go out with a big bang.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Apple Music, Sheryl Crow website, YouTube

The Venues: Beacon Theatre

In July 2017, I introduced The Venues, a category featuring famous concert halls, such as The Apollo Theatre and well known TV music programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. For some reason, the category fell off the bandwagon after the third post in November that year – not quite sure why. In any case, I felt the time was right for another installment. One of the venues that came to my mind immediately is the Beacon Theatre in New York City, in part because the beautiful historic theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is associated with two of my favorite bands: The Allman Brothers Band and Steely Dan, which both had frequent annual residencies there. The Dan still does! But first things first – a bit of history.

The Beacon Theatre opened as the Warner’s Beacon Theatre on December 24, 1929. It was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager as a venue for silent films. But when the original owners financially collapsed, Warner Theatres acquired the theater to be a first-run showcase for Warner Bros. films on the Upper West Side. By that time, the movie genre of silent films had already become obsolete. The Beacon, which subsequently was operated by Brandt Theaters, remained a movie theater over next few decades. It would take until 1974, when Steven Singer became the first owner who turned the Beacon into a venue for live music.

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Fortunately, an effort in 1987 to convert the theater into a night club was blocked in court, given its historic and protected architecture. In 1982, it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the Beacon Theatre continued to fill a spot in the midsize category venue in New York between the larger Radio City Music Hall and various smaller clubs and ballrooms. In 2006, sports and entertainment holding company The Madison Square Garden Company started operating the Beacon. In November that same year, the theater began a 20-year lease by Cablevision, which also leases Radio City Music Hall and owns Madison Square Garden.

Between the second half of 2008 and early 2009, the theater underwent a complete renovation. As reported by The New York Times, the work involved about 1,000 workers, lasted seven months and cost $16 million. The result can be seen in the above photo and is certainly stunning. I was fortunate to experience the mighty venue myself when I saw Steely Dan there in October 2018.

In addition to pop and rock concerts, the Beacon Theatre has hosted political debates, gospel choirs, comedians and many dramatic productions. The 2008 Martin Scorsese picture Shine a Light, which captured The Rolling Stones live in concert, was filmed there. In January 2016, Joan Baez celebrated her 75th birthday with a show at the Beacon. She also played the venue in May this year as part of her now completed 2018/2019 Fare Thee Well Tour. Time for some music that was performed at the Beacon.

Let’s kick things off with the Grateful Dead, who performed two shows at the theater on June 14 and 15, 1976. Apparently, the following footage of Not Fade Away was captured during a soundcheck there, not one of the actual concerts but, hey, close enough! Plus, it’s a fun clip to watch. Not Fade Away was written by Charles Hardin, a.k.a. Buddy Holly. His producer Norman Petty received a co-credit. The tune was first released as a single in October 1957. It was also included on Holly’s debut album The “Chirping” Crickets, released in November of the same year.

Next up: The Black Crowes and Remedy. Co-written by lead vocalist Chris Robinson and his brother and rhythm guitarist Rich Robinson, the tune appeared on the band’s sophomore album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion from May 1992. The footage is from late August 1992 when the Black Crowes played a series of four shows at the Beacon.

James Taylor is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. One tune I dig in particular is Fire And Rain.  He recorded it for his second studio album Sweet Baby James, which was released in February 1970. The song also came out separately as a single and became Taylor’s first hit, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. This clip was captured during a show on May 30, 1998.

Here are The Rolling Stones with Jumpin’ Jack Flash from the aforementioned Martin Scorsese concert film. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune was released as a single in May 1968. The film includes footage from two shows the Stones played at the Beacon. This performance is from their second night there on November 1, 2006.

Starting from 1998, The Allman Brothers Band played spring residencies at the Beacon for 19 years in a row except for 2010 when the theater wasn’t available. This performance of Dreams is from their March 2013 series of gigs. The Gregg Allman song first appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from November 1969.

On April 1 and 2, 2016, Bonnie Raitt played the Beacon Theatre as part of her extended Dig In Deep Tour, named after her most recent studio album from February 2016. I caught her during that tour in August 2016, which thus far was the first only time. Her gig at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. Co-written by Gordon Kennedy  and Wayne KirkpatrickGypsy In Me is one of the tracks from Dig In Deep. Not only is Raitt a superb guitarist and great vocalist, but she also is as genuine as it can get. There is no BS with this lady. What you get is what you see!

From The Allman Brothers it wasn’t a big leap to former member Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi and the group they formed in 2010: Tedeschi Trucks Band. My knowledge of their music is fairly limited, and I definitely want to explore them more closely. Here’s their take of Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, another great tune written by Gregg Allman. It first appeared on the Allmans’ third studio album Eat A Peach from February 1972, long before Trucks joined them in 1999. The song was also released separately as a single in April that year. This clip was captured on October 11, 2017 during what looks like a six-date residency the band did at the Beacon that year.

The last and most recent clip I’d like to feature is footage of Steely Dan from their 2018 U.S. tour, which ended with a seven-date residency at the Beacon. Of course, I couldn’t leave out the Dan! This performance of Pretzel Logic was from their final gig on October 30. Co-written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Pretzel Logic is the title track of Steely Dan’s third studio album that appeared in February 1974.

Until last year when I saw them twice, which included the Beacon for an October 20 show dedicated to my favorite album Aja, I had never seen Steely Dan. Both concerts were fantastic. Fagen and co are currently touring again, which will bring them back to the Beacon in October. While the thought of returning to this beautiful venue is tempting, I can’t justify it to myself, given I saw them twice last year and other shows I’ve been to or still consider for this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, setlist.fm, YouTube

Good Stuff Celebrates Great Music of Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting And Stevie Wonder

At first sight, Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder don’t seem to have many things in common. Of course, each are distinguished artists who became successful during an era when you could easily find great music, even on mainstream radio. Music that involved true craftsmanship. Music that had soul. Music that would grab you. Music that would want you to learn how to play an instrument yourself. At least, that’s what it did to me when I was in my young teens!

While I’m afraid the days when great music was part of the top 40 charts and all you really needed to do find it was switching on the radio are largely gone, there’s something very powerful about great music: It’s here to stay, in some cases even for more than 200 years, when you think about classical composers. And it should be celebrated. Enter Good Stuff, a unique tribute band to the above noted artists.

Mike Caputo
Mike Caputo, founder and lead vocalist of Good Stuff

As regular visitors of the blog know, I enjoy going to tribute shows and have done so quite frequently in recent years. This has included truly outstanding bands, and I’ve written about many of them in the past. Because of that my good blogger buddy Music Enthusiast has even jokingly called me The King of Tribute Bands. And why not? After all, there’s a king of pop, a king of rock & roll, a queen of soul, etc., so wouldn’t you agree it’s appropriate to have a king of tribute bands?😀

Most tribute acts I’ve seen focus on one particular artist or band. So when vocalist Mike Caputo, whom I’ve known for a couple of years, told me he was putting together a tribute band to celebrate the music of Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder, frankly, I was a bit skeptical at first. Steely Dan made total sense to me. Mike has been a singer, songwriter and musician for more than five decades. From his previous longtime tenure as lead vocalist of a Steely Dan tribute band, I knew he nails the voice of Donald Fagen. But adding three other artists to the mix? Well, it may not be a common concept, but Good Stuff surely pull it off beautifully. And once you listen to their setlist, you realize these songs really work well together.

Good Stuff 2
Good Stuff (clockwise): Mike Caputo, Don Regan, Axel Belohoubek, Deanna Carroll, Jay Dittamo, Scott Hogan, Phil Armeno and Linda Ferrano

Of course, it’s not only about selecting the “right” music from four different artists; it also takes great musicians to implement the concept. Which brings me to the band: Don Regan (guitar), Axel Belohoubek (keyboards), Deanna Carroll (vocals), Jay Dittamo (drums), Scott Hogan (bass), Phil Armeno (saxophones, flute) and Linda Ferrano (vocals). Linda is a recent addition to Good Stuff and alternates vocal duties with Deanna. All of these guys are professional musicians; most of them have been for more than three decades with impressive accomplishments.

For example, Alex’s credits include tour pre-production for Madonna and David Bowie. Phil was a touring backing musician for Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and The Duprees in the 70s. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley? Only the thought of playing with these rock & roll pioneers would give me acid reflux. And Phil is so moderate about it! Or take Jay. He has performed nationally and internationally with artists like The Les Paul Trio, Jose Feliciano and Keith Emerson (yep, that Keith of ELP). Scott, the youngest member of the band and a student of Don, has toured with pop group Hanson, Bernie Worrel Orchestra and The Shirelles, among others. In addition to Good Stuff, almost all members also play solo or in other bands. Not surprisingly, all this impressive experience shows!

Time to get to some music! Half of Good Stuff’s show features Steely Dan tunes. As such, the band appropriately selected a name that not only reflects the music they play but is also related to Steely Dan, or more precisely to Donald Fagen. Good Stuff is a Fagen tune from his fourth studio album Sunken Condos released in October 2012. The song I’d like to highlight here is My Old School. Co-written by Fagen and Walter Becker, the tune appeared on Steely Dan’s second studio album Countdown to Ecstasy from July 1973.

Gino Vannelli is the one artist in the mix I’m much less familiar with than the others. Among the handful of his tunes I know and dig is Brother To Brother, the title track of his sixth studio record from September 1978. It’s a jazzy and pretty complex tune, which I think measures up nicely to the Aja album, the gem in Steely Dan’s catalog.

Next up: Sting. Good Stuff has decided to focus on featuring material from the ex-Police man’s fourth solo effort: the excellent Ten Summoner’s Tales, which happens to be my favorite Sting album. Here’s Heavy Cloud No Rain. Like the majority of the album’s tracks, the tune was entirely written by Sting.

The last song I’d like to call out is Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing by Stevie Wonder. This great tune is from his 16th studio album Innervisions, which is widely considered to be one of the highlights of Wonder’s long catalog. He is one of my all-time favorite artists, and I would have loved to see him last year in Atlantic City during his short summer tour. But with ticket prices starting at $350, it was simply impossible.

It’s still relatively early days for Good Stuff. So far, they haven’t ventured beyond New Jersey. In fact, next Saturday, March 23, they will play Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, a great performance venue in Asbury Park, the hotbed of Jersey’s music scene. Mike told me he is starting to receive an increasing amount of queries from agents, including from out of state. As such, folks who do not reside in the Garden State may get a chance to see the band in the future. In case you’d like to further check them out, visit their website or Facebook page.

Sources: Wikipedia, Good Stuff website, YouTube

50th Anniversary Editions Of Two Iconic Albums Released

The Beatles’ White Album and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland are celebrated with major reissues

Today could be a first, or in case I’m wrong, it’s safe to say this doesn’t happen often: Two major reissues of albums by iconic music artists appearing the same day. The White Album by The Beatles and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience are now officially out. Other than what’s currently available in Apple Music I don’t have access to any of the actual special releases at this time, yet I’d feel remiss not write about these special editions.

While the White Album isn’t my favorite Beatles album and I tend to agree with those who say they should have put the strongest songs on one record rather than releasing a double album, The Beatles remain my all-time favorite band. That’s likely not going to change. Moreover, based on what I’ve read and heard, this reissue definitely features material that intrigues me. As for Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland would be my no. one album choice overall, even though it doesn’t include my two favorite Hendrix tunes: Purple Haze and Hey Joe.

The White Album 50th Anniversary Configurations

The White Album reissue is available in four configurations: A Super Deluxe 7-disc set (on the left in above picture) featuring 50 mostly previously unreleased recordings all newly mixed with 5.1 surround audio as well as the so-called Esher Demos; a deluxe 4-LP edition; a 2-LP issue (pictured above in the middle); and a deluxe 3-CD set (on the right in the above image). The remixed original tracks, the Esher Demos and additional takes are also available on iTunes/Apple Music and other digital and streaming services.

Similar to last year’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band anniversary edition, Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, worked together with mix engineer Sam Okell. They newly mixed the album’s 30 original tracks in stereo and 5.1 surround audio, together with 27 early acoustic demos and 50 session takes, most of which weren’t released in any form previously. While I have no doubt the sound is fantastic and superior to previous recordings, for the most part I can’t hear the differences. That’s largely because the streaming versions are lower quality than the CDs or vinyl records. And, yes, part of it may also be explained by some hearing loss I can’t deny! Here’s a cool lyric video of the 2018 mix of Back In The U.S.S.R.

Given the above mentioned sound quality constraints, what’s more intriguing to me, are the additional demo and session tracks, particularly the Esher Demos that were recorded in May 1968 at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher located to the southwest of London. These are early and unplugged versions of most of the original album tracks, along with a few additional songs that didn’t make the album.

Two of the tunes that weren’t included on the White Album, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, ended up on Abbey Road. Not Guilty, a Harrison composition, was eventually released on his eponymous studio album from February 1979, his eighth studio record. And then there’s John Lennon’s Child Of Nature, which became Jealous Guy and was included on Lennon’s second solo album Imagine from September 1971 – admittedly stuff that is likely to primarily excite Beatles fans like myself.

Two things are very striking to me about these Esher Demos. The amount of writing was just remarkable during a time when tensions among The Beatles were increasing, which even led to Ringo Starr’s temporary departure. But despite their differences, somehow these guys were still able to engage as a band. They even has some fun, as background chatter on some of these home recordings suggests. Here’s the Esher Demo of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. While it’s clearly not my favorite Beatles tune, does this sound to you like a band in distress?

The Electric Ladyland Deluxe 50th Anniversary Box Set comes in two formats: 3-CD/one Blu-ray or 6-LP/one Blue-ray. It features a newly remastered Electric Ladyland album; Electric Ladyland: The Early Takes (unreleased demos); Live At The Hollywood Bowl 9/14/68 (unreleased concert); the previously released documentary about the making of the album At Last … The Beginning with 40 minutes of new footage; 5.1 surround sound mix of Electric Ladyland album; Linda McCartney’s original cover photo as chosen by Jimi Hendrix but rejected by the record company; a 48-page book featuring unpublished photos; and new essays by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke and Hendrix biographer John McDermott.

Electric Ladyland Box Set

CD mastering and the 5.1 surround sound mix were done by Eddie Kramer, sound engineer on all Hendrix albums released during his lifetime. Vinyl mastering was done by Bernie Grundman, who has mastered albums, such as Aja (Steely Dan), Thriller (Michael Jackson) and various Prince records.

Similar to Abbey Road, which couldn’t have been more different from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Electric Ladyland marked a significant change for Jimi Hendrix. Unlike the first two albums by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, where producer Chas Chandler tightly managed the recording process, Hendrix was fully in charge on Electric Ladyland. Recording sessions were no longer determined by Chandler’s tight organization and time management, but by Hendrix’s unconstrained perfectionism. Hendrix also repeatedly invited friends and guests to join him in the studio, such Brian Jones (still with The Rolling Stones at the time), Steve Winwood and Al Kooper. This created oftentimes chaotic recording conditions, which eventually led to Chandler to walk out on Hendrix.

Except for some tracks from the documentary At Last … The Beginning, currently, nothing else from the Electric Ladyland reissue is available on iTunes or Apple Music. I suspect it is similar for other digital or streaming platforms. That’s unfortunate and I assume done by design to encourage purchases of the actual box set. Probably for the same reason, I also couldn’t find any YouTube clips of songs from the reissue. The CD version currently sells for $42.39 on Amazon, while the vinyl configuration is going for $98.39. Here’s a fun clip of Eddie Kramer talking about Electric Ladyland and the new box set.

Sources: Wikipedia, Beatles website, Jimi Hendrix website, YouTube

The Crimson Tide Sways The Beacon During Night Of The Expanding Man

Steely Dan shine with special performance of Aja album and other gems

Usually, I don’t see the same music act twice in just three months, even if I dig them. There are so many other artists on my list, plus ticket prices nowadays would simply make this unaffordable. But while I was still raving about a Steely Dan show I caught in July (see review here) I learned about their October residency at The Beacon Theatre in New York City. And when I noticed it would include a special performance of my all-time favorite Steely Dan album Aja, I immedeidately knew I wouldn’t want to miss it – especially after the summer gig had convinced me that Donald Fagen is still on top of his game contrary to some less than flattering reviews I had read. Finally, Thursday night, it was time for the expanding man, and what a night it was!

To start with, I had never been to The Beacon Theatre, even though I’m a longtime music fan and would have had plenty of opportunity for the past 20 years or so – I can’t quite explain why! When I mentioned it to my friendly seat neighbors and huge Steely Dan fans – a dad and his son who had come all the way from England to see this show and another special performance tonight of Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nighfly, the dad jokingly said, ‘you must have been very busy.’

Beacon Theatre Interior

He certainly had a point. After all, this beautiful historic venue (pictured above) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side has featured many top-notch acts over the decades, perhaps most notably The Allman Brothers Band. For about two decades, the southern blues rockers had a residency there each spring. I actually recall that in ca. 1998, a former colleague and Brothers fan told he was going to see them there.

This brings me to another dark issue of my music past – gee, this starts feeling a bit like I’m writing a confession! At the time my former colleague told me about the above Brothers show, Ramblin’ Man was pretty much all I knew about the band. It really wasn’t until three years ago or so that I explored The Allman Brothers Band I greater depth and quickly became a fan – luckily in time to at least see them once in an unforgettable performance, though not at the Beacon but at PNC Bank Arts Center in Central New Jersey. Well, to both I say better late than never, plus you can’t change the past! On the show.

An excellent jazz trio featuring organ (Hammond), guitar and drums opened the night. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch their name. While I don’t mind listening to jazz, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. So how come I like Steely Dan you might ask? Well, because jazz is just one aspect of their music, albeit an important one, especially on Aja. Perhaps more importantly, music taste isn’t always rational. Regardless how I usually feel about jazz, these three guys really grabbed me. I guess Donald Fagen, who is known for being a perfectionist, likely wouldn’t approve of some amateurs to open his show, and amatuers these guys were definitely not! And that I can easily get mesmerized by the mighty sound of a Hammond also didn’t hurt. When that organ player held the keys in the vibrato setting and the air in the place started to pulsate, I just got goosebumps – I could have listened to him all night!

Steely Dan_Aja

Finally, the time has come to get to Steely Dan. The first half of their set was reserved for the Aja album, which the band performed in its entirety, following the order of the tracks on the studio recording. The remainder of the show featured select gems from other Dan records, one track from The Nightfly, as well as a couple of covers. The full set list is here. The song collection was really a treat for Steely Dan fans!

Released in September 1977 as their sixth studio album, Aja remains the crown jewel in Dan’s catalog, in my opinion. Like for most of their records, all tracks were written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Fagen and his top-notch band did an outstanding job capturing Aja’s rich sound in all of its glory. Following are a few clips. Light conditions proved to be challenging, and some of the footage is out of focus, but I’d be amiss not to include some of it – sue me if I write too long!

First up: My all-time favorite Steely Dan tune, which they didn’t play back in July.

…Learn to work the saxophone/I play just what I feel/Drink Scotch whiskey all night long/And die behind the wheel/They got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/Call me Deacon Blues…

Next is Home At Last. Love the groove of that song. Check out the mighty four-piece horn section and the beautful backing vocals by The Danettes – it’s just perfect!

And here is the album’s closer Josie. As a former bass player, I’ve always loved the cool bassline on that tune. You may need more than my crappy labtop speakers to fully hear it!

Following are a few clips from the concert’s second half. First up: The epic Hey Nineteen from Gaucho, Dan’s seventh studio album released in November 1980. It was their last effort before they disbanded in June 1981 and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. One of the highlights in the clip is the extended trombone solo by Jim Pugh that starts at about 4:08 minutes.

Here’s The Goodbye Look, the above mentioned track from The Nightfly, which became Donald Fagen’s acclaimed solo debut in October 1982. Like all the other tracks on the record except for one, the tune with a laid back Caribbean groove was written by Fagen.

And, since all things must pass, the last song I’d like to highlight is Reelin’ In The Years. I simply couldn’t skip this classic from Steely Dan’s November 1972 debut Can’t Buy A Thrill, even though I also featured it my previous post about the July gig. I just love the great guitar work by Jon Herrington and the cool drum solo by Keith Carlock. These guys are just top-notch, demonstrating how great music can sound like! I think it’s also nice to see the traditionally reserved Fagen get animated after the end of the drum solo.

After repeatedly raving about the band, I’d like to acknowledge the members. As far as I could tell, the lineup was the same than during the aforementioned summer gig: Apart from Herrington, Carlock, Pugh and obviously Fagen, it included Freddie Washington (bass), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax), Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes (backing vocals): La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart.

Steely Dan Collage
Current lineup of Steely Dan: Upper row (left to right): Jon Herington (guitar), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax). Lower row (left to right): Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart. Far right: Donald Fagen

In addition to the above noted show tonight, Steely Dan’s residency at The Beacon Theatre has six more dates: Oct 21: By Popular Demand: An Audience Request Night Determined By Fan Voting; Oct 24: Performing Countdown To Ecstasy Plus Select Hits; Oct 26: Performing Gaucho Plus Select Hits; Oct 27: Performing Aja Plus Select Hits (let’s pretend I didn’t see this!); Oct 29: Performing Nightfly And Select Hits; and Oct 30: Performing Greatest Hits. Afterwards, it appears Steely Dan is taking a break before resuming touring in the U.K. and Ireland in February 2019.

If you’re a fan and can make it, I’d say go and see them. And, did I mention it’s a great opportunity to visit one of New York’s iconic performance venues?

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, Steely Dan website, YouTube

Steely Dan And The Doobie Brothers End Double Headliner Tour On High Notes

Both bands deliver powerful sets at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center

The Summer Of Living Dangerously was supposed to have wrapped up on Saturday in Bethel, N.Y. Instead, Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers brought their double-headlining tour to a close yesterday at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. – and what a glorious night it was for both bands!

Initially, the show had been scheduled for July 6. But due to an illness of one of the musicians, the gig had been postponed on short notice. Luckily, it didn’t get cancelled altogether. After all, as The Doobies’ Tom Johnston put it, this was the end of “a long and draining tour” with Steely Dan. But while more than 30 dates crammed in just three months must have been exhausting, you surely didn’t notice any of the musicians were worn out. On the contrary, at times, it seemed they were playing as if it was their last gig ever!

The Summer Of Living Dangerously

As I usually do leading up to concerts, I checked YouTube for recent performances, setlist.fm and online reviews to get a better feeling what to expect. In this case, I noticed the reviews were consistently great for The Doobies but more on the mixed side for Steely Dan. Some reviewers were disappointed that unlike the southern rockers, Donald Fagen left out Dan gems like Deacon Blues and Do It Again. Others noted Fagen’s voice sounded challenged, especially on the high notes. YouTube clips I had watched prior to the show seemed to confirm some of what the above reviews noted.

Based on the above, I had definitely adjusted my expectations – after all, who wants to be disappointed! As such, I was anticipating a solid set from The Doobies and more of a mixed bag from Donald Fagen/Steely Dan. What I feel I got instead were kick-ass performances from each! While Fagen’s vocal performance may have varied during some of the tour’s previous shows, I thought he was in great shape last night! Maybe it helped that the boy from Passaic, N.J. was home at last, as he acknowledged at some point. Fagen also showed signs that he enjoyed himself – something I understand he’s not particularly known for!

The Doobie Brothers.jpg
Current lineup of The Doobie Brothers (left to right): John Cowan (bass, vocals), Patrick Simmons (guitars, vocals, co-founder), Ed Tooth (drums), Marc Russo (saxophone), Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, co-founder), John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, dobro, fiddle, vocals, core member since 1979) and Bill Payne (keyboards; not in photo)

The Doobies kicked off the great night. From the very first bars of Natural Thing to the last note of the second encore Listen To The Music, these guys sounded as terrific as they did the first time I saw them some 20 years ago: the harmony singing, the dynamic of the music – everything was still there, and it all still sounded fresh – pretty amazing! What more could you possibly ask for?

Time for some clips. I decided to capture and use my own video material. This comes with all the caveats you have, recording with a smartphone that isn’t latest generation and when you’re not exactly sitting in the first row. But at least it’s authentic!:-)

First up: Rockin’ Down The Highway. Penned by Johnston, this great rocker appeared on Toulouse Street, The Doobies’ second studio album from July 1972 and their commercial breakthrough.

Another classic from Toulouse Street is Jesus Is Just Alright. For some reason, I had always thought of it as an original Doobies tune – I was wrong. According to Wikipedia, the song, a gospel tune, was written by Arthur Reid Reynolds and first recorded by his band The Art Reynolds Singers for their 1966 studio album Tellin’ It Like It is. Who knew.

In general, I’m more drawn to the early phase of The Doobies – basically, their first five studio records. One of the exceptions is Cycles, the band’s 10th studio album from May 1989, the first record following their reunion after the 1982 break-up. One of the tunes from Cycles I dig is the opener The Doctor, a co-write by Johnston and the record’s co-producers Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. Last night, the nice honky-tonk piano by Bill Payne and Johnston’s guitar work stood out to me. It’s just a seductive tune overall that’s very reminiscent of the early Doobies.

Another classic by the southern rockers is Long Train Runnin’. Written by Johnston, the tune was included on the band’s third studio album The Captain And Me, released in March 1973. I’ve always dug the combination of funk and rock in this song. This is also a great track to call out killer saxophonist Marc Russo. The guy must have been blowing out his lungs! Long Train Runnin’ was the last track of the band’s regular set, so I guess that’s the reason why they extended it. It meant more great sax playing. The audience certainly loved it!

And while I could keep on raving about southern rockers, I also need to get to Fagen & Co., so I’m going to wrap up The Doobies’ section with an additional gem from The Captain And Me: China Grove, yet another Johnston composition and the first encore. If you’re curious what else they played, you can check here.

After such a dynamic set from The Doobies, the bar certainly had been set high for Steely Dan. Of course, Fagen and his former partner Walter Becker have been known for playing with top-notch musicians, so I hadn’t had any real concerns the band somehow wouldn’t be up to par. It was mostly Fagen I had wondered about. But as noted at the outset, he had a great night, so I really couldn’t have been more happy!

Steely Dan Collage
Current lineup of Steely Dan: Upper row (left to right): Jon Herington (guitar), Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums), Walt Weiskopf (tenor sax) and Roger Rosenberg (baritone sax). Lower row (left to right): Jim Pugh (trombone), Michael Leonhart (trumpet) and The Danettes La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell & Carolyn Leonhart. Far right: Donald Fagen

Following a set-opening jazz instrumental performed by just the band (see lineup in caption of above photo collage I put together), during which the musicians immediately took the opportunity to shine, Fagen entered the stage. In a deviation from previous set lists I had seen, they played Black Cow, the opener from Dan’s masterpiece Aja. Apparently, it was swapped with Josie, which during earlier gigs had been included later in the set. Here’s my clip.

Next up: Black Friday from Katy Lied, Steely Dan’s fourth studio album that appeared in March 1975. The record was the first after the break-up of the band’s original five-piece lineup. At that time, Fagen and Becker had decided to stop touring and become a studio band. Additionally, they increasingly were relying on top-notch session musicians for their recordings. Among the latter were guitarist Rick Derringer, drummer Jeff Porcaro and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), who BTW just a month after the record’s release joined The Doobie Brothers.

While as previously noted Fagen & co.  didn’t play Do It Again, one of my favorite early Dan tunes, they performed Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, another early gem I dig. It appeared on Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic from February 1974. Also released separately as the record’s first single in April that year, it became their biggest hit, climbing all the way to no. 4 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.

Steely Dan didn’t skip Can’t Buy A Thrill altogether. In fact, they played two tunes from their studio debut released in November 1972. One was Dirty Work, which prominently featured the band’s excellent backing vocalists La Tanya Hall, Catherine Russell and Carolyn Leonhart, a.k.a. The Danettes.

The last tune of the regular set was My Old School from Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown To Ecstasy, which came out in July 1973. Like predecessor Bodhisattva, it featured Connor Kennedy, a young guitar virtuoso hailing from Woodstock, N.Y., who had toured with Fagen last year as part of a band called The Nightflyers.

The amazing Reelin’ In The Years, the second tune from Can’t Buy A Thrill, was the first encore and the last Dan tune of the night. To see what other songs they played you can check here. Reelin’ In The Years also included Kennedy who traded guitar licks with Jon Herington. Unfortunately, while I was recording this great performance, Facebook cheerfully informed me that something had gone wrong and that my live video had stopped – bummer! But with close to 4 minutes, at least I captured a good chunk of it, so decided it was worthwhile keeping and including the clip in this post. Plus, Fagen’s outgoing “yah!” that precedes the performance is kind of cool!

Based on what I experienced last night, I can highly recommend the show, except of course that particular tour is now over. But looking at their schedules, each band already has additional dates on the calendar for this year. The Doobies resume performing in San Francisco on September 20 together with the Eagles – that should be fun! There are also dates in San Diego; Clearwater, Fla., Greensburg, Pa.; and two special shows at New York’s Beacon Theatre in mid-November, where they will perform the albums Toulouse Street and The Captain And Me in their entirety, along with other songs.

Steely Dan has 18 additional dates on the schedule starting October 1, including a nine-gig residency at the Beacon Theatre, beginning October 17. Like The Doobies, these are special performances dedicated to select Dan albums, including The Royal Scam (May 1976), Aja, Countdown to Ecstasy and Gaucho (November 1980). There are also shows focusing on Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly (October 1982), a gig billed as “greatest hits,” as well as an on-demand concert, based on fan voting.

I have to say, Dan’s Aja performance sounds really tempting, especialy since they left out Deacon Blues and Josie last night. Plus. I’ve never been to the Beacon Theatre, a venue where The Allman Brothers used to perform, making it something like “holy ground.” You see what I did here? Trying to rationale spending additional money on yet another concert. We shall see!

Sources: Wikipedia, setlist.fm, Doobie Brothers official website, Steely Dan official website, YouTube

“The Making of Aja” Is A Must See For Fans Of True Music Craftsmanship

Documentary provides commentary from Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and studio musicians who were involved in the recording of Steely Dan’s masterpiece

With my Steely Dan show (okay, make that Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan band) coming up tonight, not surprisingly, Fagen and his former partner in crime Walter Becker have been on my mind. As I usually do prior to concerts, I was browsing YouTube last night to get a peek from the band’s recent performances. Since I’m admittedly a bit of a music geek, of course, I’ve also checked setlist.fm and have a good idea of what to expect. Suddenly, I stumbled across The Making Of Aja, a fascinating film that documents the recording of what I feel is Steely Dan’s absolute masterpiece and certainly one of my favorite records of all time.

Surprisingly, there is very little public information about the film. According to IMDb, it appeared in 1999 and was produced by British television director Alan Lewens. The documentary’s official title is Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja. It breaks down each of the magnificent tracks on the record, featuring interviews with Becker, Fagen, Aja producer Gary Katz, guitarists Larry Carlton and Dean Parks, bassist Chuck Rainey, drummer Rick Marotta and other musicians involved in the cumbersome process of recording the album.

Even if you don’t love Steely Dan’s music, I think you’ll still enjoy this documentary, as long as you like music craftsmanship and have at least some degree of interest in how great music is created. Enough of the upfront talking, or I should better say writing, and time to get to some clips!

Here’s the section of the film that discusses the songs Black Cow and Home At Last. It starts with Fagen doing a hilarious rap singing uptown, baby, uptown, baby, alluding to the track Deja Vu by Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz (frankly, no idea about these guys!), who sampled a snippet of Black Cow. Among others, he and Fagen also discuss the meaning of the title; other than that it was a soft drink with ice cream that was popular when they were kids, the two music geniuses don’t appear to be absolutely sure what was in the beverage!

The next film excerpt is about Deacon Blues, my favorite Dan tune. Among others, Becker and Fagen isolate different tracks of the song on the mixing board, which I find particularly fascinating. Also very telling is the following commentary by session guitarist Parks: “One interesting thing about Donald and Walter is that perfection is not what they are after. They are after something you wanna listen to over and over again. So we would work past the perfection point until it became natural – until it sounded almost improvised.” That’s an interesting observation. You’d think that doing the same parts over and over again would be the equivalent of over-rehearsing, which to me sounds like the opposite of improvisation!

The last section I’d like to highlight is about the album’s closer Josie. It starts off with bassist Rainey discussing the song’s bass line – something I’m particularly drawn to as a former bass player. Fagen and Becker also discuss their reliance on session musicians. “Around the time we made Aja we had figured out what it was we sort of wanted to do, you know, musically” explains Fagen. “We realized that we needed session musicians who had a larger pallet of things they could do and who were also good readers because they were coming in cold.”

Have I whet your appetite? Well, in case you’d like to watch the remainder of the documentary and don’t mind Japanese subtitles, here’s a clip of what appears to be the entire film or most of it.

Sources: Wikipedia, IMDb, YouTube