Great Music Isn’t Quite Dead Yet

Four coinciding releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry Cooder, John Mellencamp and Glenn Fry

Yesterday was a great day in music as far as I’m concerned. When was the last time you can remember new releases from four great artists coming out the same day? While admittedly sometimes I don’t recall what I did the previous day, I really couldn’t tell you. Sadly, when checking iTunes for new music, I usually see stuff I don’t care about, so why even bother? Well, part of me refuses to give up hope that amid all the mediocre crap that dominates the charts these days, I might find something I actually dig. This time I surely did, with new releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry CooderJohn Mellencamp and Glenn Frey.

Since I just wrote about Daltrey’s new single How Far from his upcoming solo album As Long As I Have You, I’m only briefly acknowledging it in this post. Based on this tune and the previously released title track, his new record surely looks very promising. It’s set to come out June 1, tough I have a feeling we might see a third single leading up to its release – really looking forward to this one!

Ry Cooder_The Prodigal Son

Ry Cooder’s new album The Prodigal Son is his 17th solo record and first new release in six years. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on his music – in fact, I know far too little about it. But here’s what I know. I’ve yet to hear bad music from this virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and I know good music when I hear it. And this it, baby, great music – plain and simple – no need to over-analyze!

The Prodigal Son is a beautiful collection of roots and gospel music. Eight of the 11 tunes are covers from artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Alfred Reed and Carter Stanley. All of the reviews I read noted the album represents a return all the way to the beginning of Cooder’s 50-year recording career. Asked by the Los Angeles Times why he decided to make a gospel-focused record, Cooder said, “In these times, all I can say, empathy is good, understanding is good, a little tolerance is good. We have these dark forces of intolerance and bigotry that are growing back…The gospel music has a nice way of making these suggestions about empathy…Plus I like the songs, I have to admit.” Well said!

Here’s a nice clip of the Blind Willie tune Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right – sadly, this couldn’t be more timely! Watching the maestro at work live in the studio is a real treat. By the way, the drummer is Cooder’s son Joachim, who has collaborated with him on several records and tours in the past and apparently was an important catalyst for the new record.

More frequent readers of the blog know that I’m a huge fan of John Mellencamp. His new release Plain Spoken: From The Chicago Theatre is a companion to a concert film that debuted on Netflix on February 1st. It captures a show Mellencamp performed at the landmark venue on October 25, 2016. The set features country singer Carlene Carter, with whom he has been on the road for several years and recorded the excellent 2017 collaboration album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.

John Mellencamp_Plain Spoken From The Chicago Theatre

The new DVD-CD set includes the original version of the Netflix film with commentary from Mellencamp throughout, a “non-commentary” version of the film, and a live CD of the concert. While I’ve only listened into some of the tunes from the CD via Apple Music, I certainly like what I’ve heard so far. Here’s a clip of Cherry Bomb, a track from the 1987 studio album The Lonesome Jubilee, one of my favorite Mellencamp records.

Last but not least, there’s Above The Clouds: The Collection, a new four-disc box set capturing the solo career of Glenn Frey. The set combines well known tunes like The Heat Is On, Smuggler’s Blues and You Belong To City with lesser known, deeper cuts and, perhaps most intriguingly, a copy of Longbranch Pennywhistle, a pre-Eagles 1969 album Frey recorded with J.D. Souther. The set also includes a DVD capturing footage from Frey gig in September 1992.

Glenn Frey_Above The Clouds Box Set

Admittedly, I had not been aware of Longbranch Pennywhistle, which according to Ultimate Class Rock until now had only been available on CD as an import. Frey and Souther also performed as a duo under that name, though it was a short-lived venture. Frey went on to co-found the Eagles in 1971, together with Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. Souther ended up co-writing some of the band’s best known tunes, such as Best Of My Love, Heartache Tonight and New Kid In Town. Here’s a clip of Run Boy, Run, one of the tracks from the Longbranch Pennywhistle album, which was written by Frey.

While Daltrey’s upcoming album is something to look forward to, I’m under no illusion that yesterday was an aberration. The days when great music releases were part of the mainstream are long gone. Still, why not enjoy the nice moment while it lasts!

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, NPR, John Mellencamp official website, USA Today, Ultimate Classic Rock, YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part III

The concerts that moved me

The third installment of my year-in-review feature looks back on the many great concerts this year I had the fortune to see in 2017. It was a nice mix of major and semi-professional acts, including various excellent tribute bands. Following are highlights from my favorite shows.

U2, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J., June 30

After I had listened to U2 for more than 30 years, I finally saw the Irish rock band during their Joshua Tree Tour 2017. In a nutshell, seeing them perform what I think is their best album live in its entirety, along with many other great songs, was simply epic!  You can read more about the show here. In addition, following is a clip of Red Hill Mining Town.

John Mellencamp, Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, July 7

This was the second time I saw John Mellencamp after close to 20 years. Since the gig was part of a tour supporting his most recent album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which features Carlene Carter, I wasn’t sure what to expect: R.O.C.K. or more of the stripped down Americana Mellencamp has gradually embraced since 1986’s The Lonesome Jubilee. It was definitely the former! While his voice has changed quite a bit since the days of Jack And Diane, Pink Houses, Small Town and Paper In Fire, he still delivered many of his ’80s with great dynamic. More about this great show, which also featured Emmylou Harris as a guest, is here. And for instant gratification, you can watch this nice clip of Pink Houses. Mellencamp’s and Carter’s voices go beautifully together!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’, F.M. Kirby Center of the Performing Arts, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., August 10

If I would have to name one show as the highlight, I guess it would have to be this concert. Seeing blues dynamos Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ bring the good time to the heart of Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley and doing it with such joy was simply priceless. Also remarkable was opening act Jontavious Willis, a 21-year-old country blues artist from Greenville, Ga., who with just an acoustic guitar blew the roof off the place. I previously reviewed the show here. Following is a clip of the Sleepy John Estes tune Diving Duck Blues. The chemistry between Mahal and Mo’ is just amazing.

Deep Purple, Alice Cooper and Edgar Winter, PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J., August 28

It’s hard to believe it took me more than 30 years after I had first listened to Machine Head to see my favorite hard rock band Deep Purple live. Together with Mr. Shock Rock Alice Cooper and high-energy blues rocker Edgar Winter, it made for three-and-a-half hours of furious rock and possibly some additional hearing loss! You can read more about my experience here. And here is a clip of one of Deep Purple’s signature tunes,  Highway Star.

Outstanding Tribute Bands

I’ve also seen a number of excellent tribute bands this year. Full-time professional acts included RAIN and Get The Led Out, tributes to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, respectively. My review of the shows are here and here. Following is a clip of RAIN performing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.

And here is Get The Led Out killing it with Rock And Roll.

Two other outstanding tribute bands I like to highlight are Decade and The Royal Scam, tributes to Neil Young and Steely Dan, respectively. In fact, I was so much impressed with these bands that I saw them more than once – Decade three times and The Royal Scam twice. Here is my review of a Decade gig in late October. To get an idea, check out this clip of Ohio.

One of The Royal Scam’s concerts I visited was a great gig at an intimate jazz club in October. I posted about it here. The following clip of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was captured at an outdoor performance during the summer, the first time I saw these guys.

Cool music festivals

Last but not least I’d like to acknowledge three great music festivals I attended. It started with a British Invasion spectacle in Atlantic City in June, which featured The Glimmer Twins and Who’s Next, tributes to The Rolling Stones and The Who, respectively, as well as Britain’s Finest, another tribute band to The Beatles. I posted about the event here. A nice promo clip of Who’s Next is below.

In September, I visited two additional festivals, which are conducted annually. First up was the Rock The Farm Festival in Seaside Heights, N.J., also cleverly called Faux-Chella, the concert that never was. In addition to the above mentioned The Glimmer Twins and Decade, the festival featured tributes to Carole King, Johnny Cash, Grateful Dead, The Beatles (yet another tribute band!), The Doors, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. Here is my review of the 10-hour rock marathon. And following is a nice highlights reel of the Pink Floyd tribute, which is called Echoes.

Finally, there was Colts Neck Rockfest. The two-day event presented close to 30 bands from New Jersey. Unlike Rock The Farm, this festival focused less on tribute acts. Instead, most of the performers were cover bands, while the remaining acts mixed original material with covers. My post about the great event is here. Following is a clip of Moroccan Sheepherders performing Feeling Stronger Every Day by Chicago.

The last and final installment of this year-in-feature will reflect on some of the great artists who passed in 2017.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me

Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)

Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.

Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)

John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.

Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.

Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)

Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.

Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!

New music from young blues rock artists

There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.

Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!

Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.

Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!

Anniversary editions of standout albums

As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.

Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.

The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.

Other notable new releases

It is impossible to cover all new 2017 music I liked, even with breaking down this year-in-review feature into four parts. But at least, I’d like to mention other albums that are noteworthy to me: Ryan Adams/Prisoner (Feb 17), Deep Purple/inFinite (Apr 7), John Mayer/The Search For Everything (Apr 14), Sheryl Crow/Be Myself (April 21), Little Steven/Soulfire (May 19), Chuck Berry/Chuck (Jun 9), Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Jun 16), Alice Cooper/Paranormal (July 28), Steve Winwood/Greatest Hits Live (Sep 1), Ringo Starr/Give More Love (Sep 15), The Church/Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Oct 6), Bob Seger/I Knew You When (Nov 17), U2/Songs Of Experience (Dec 1) and The Rolling Stones/On Air (Dec 1).

The next part of this year-in-review feature will look at some of concerts I attended this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

John Mellencamp Made Philly’s Walls Come Crumblin’ Down

Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter added country power at Mann Center last night

When I read John Mellencamp was going to bring his Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, my decision to get a ticket didn’t take long. It’s a 1.5-hour drive from my house, and I’ve driven longer to see a great show! The only question was, would it be R.O.C.K. or more of the stripped down Americana Mellencamp has gradually embraced since 1986’s The Lonesome Jubilee. It was definitely the former!

When you name your tour Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, it’s appropriate to add some country flavor to the mix. With Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, Mellencamp invited two pretty amazing ladies of the genre. And I say that as somebody who hardly listens to country music. Carter essentially has been touring with Mellencamp for the past three years and is also prominently featured on his last album.

Carlene Carter

Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, opened up the show all by herself, alternating between guitar and the piano – frankly, she didn’t need anything else! Except for one tune, Damascus Road, which she wrote for Sad Clowns, I didn’t know her songs. But this lady drew me in pretty quickly, so it didn’t matter whether or not I was familiar with her music.

Looking now at her set thanks to Setlist.fm, in addition to the above excellent Sad Clowns tune, Carter played five songs from her previous four studio albums. This included Every Little Thing from 1993’s Little Love Letters, which peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks and appears to be one of her biggest hits. To me the highlight of Carter’s set was Lonesome Valley 2003, one of two tracks she performed on keyboards from her most recent solo album Carter Girl (2014). It’s a heartfelt song about her mother. Here’s a clip of the studio version, which features Vince Gill. Last night, Carter delivered it just as beautifully, if not with even more passion.

Next came country music legend Emmylou Harris. Over her impressive 45-year-plus career, she has received numerous accolades, including 13 Grammys and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. While similar to Carter, Harris is not an artist I usually listen to, I thought she delivered a powerful performance as well. And as somebody who recently turned 70, she also looked great!

Emmylou Harris

Again, I have to peek at Setlist.fm to elaborate on Harris’ 11-song set. She dug deeply into her catalogue, ranging from Luxury Liner and Pancho & Lefty, both from Luxury Liner (1976) to My Name Is Emmett Till, from Hard Bargain, her last solo studio album released in 2011. Interestingly, Harris hardly played any of her big hits, except for Born to Run (Cimarron, 1981), which peaked at no. 3 on the U.S. country charts. In my opinion, her most powerful performance was Emmett Till. The tune recalls the true story of a 14-year-old African-American, who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after allegedly offending the 21-year-old wife of a small grocery store owner. Here’s a clip of the song, which supposedly was captured during a 2012 live performance.

Then it was John Mellencamp’s turn. Of course, as a huge fan of the Indiana rocker for more than 30 years, I didn’t wait until the concert to get an idea what he is going to play – once again, bless Setlist.fm!

The first thing I noticed was the set only includes three songs from Sad Clowns, namely Grandview, My Soul’s Got Wings and Easy Target – a surprise, given Mellencamp named the tour after the album. I also saw there are plenty of tunes from his early, more rock-oriented phase, which represents the Mellencamp I came to love initially. Given his full-blown embrace of acoustic roots music in more recent years, I figured, ‘okay, so maybe he’ll do stripped down versions of his rockers.’ Nope!

John Mellencamp 1

From the opening bars of his first tune Lawless Times, included on the 2014 studio album Plain Spoken, Mellencamp made it crystal clear he wasn’t stripping down anything – in fact, most of the 18-song set rocked pretty vigorously! Unlike Carter and Harris, he also didn’t shy away from playing many of his biggest hits he scored over the last 35 years. It made for a dynamite performance!

Mellencamp covered songs from 10 albums, ranging from 1982’s American Fool (Jack & Diane) to Sad Clowns (Grandview, My Soul’s Got Wings and Easy Target). In addition to Sad Clowns, Mellencamp also played three tunes from each Scaregrow (Minutes to Memories, Rain On the Scaregrow and Small Town), The Lonesome Jubilee (Check It Out, Paper in Fire, Cherry Bomb) and Uh-Huh (Crumblin’ Down, Authority Song and Pink Houses). The remaining tracks included John Cockers (Life, Death, Love and Freedom, 2014), Pop Singer (Big Daddy, 1989) and a great cover of the Robert Johnson song Stones In My Passway (Trouble No More, 2003).

Pretty much every song Mellencamp performed was awesome, so it is hard to highlight a few tunes only. So I guess I go by some of my all-time favorites. First up is Small Town. Here’s clip I found from an earlier Sad Clowns show. Frankly, last night’s version seemed to rock a lot more! Of course, while smartphone video cameras have become pretty good, they do have their limitations.

Next up: Grandview together with Carter. She and Mellencamp just sound great together. They also visibly have good chemistry! 🙂 Immediately following is My Soul’s Got Wings, the only song in the show where Mellencamp is joined by both Carter and Harris – pretty cool!

Another tune I cannot leave out is Pink Houses. If I had to name my most favorite performance of the show, it would have to be this track. Again, Carter and Mellencamp just sound awesome together!

Last but not least, the set’s and show’s closer, Cherry Bomb.

This post would not be complete without acknowledging the top-notch musicians who backed up Harris (The Red Dirt Boys), as well as Mellencamp’s tour band: Andy York (guitar), Mike Wanchic (guitar), John Gunnell (bass), Dane Clark (drums), Miriam Sturm (violin), Troye Kennett (keyboards and accordion). While each of these musicians is outstanding, I’d like to call out Sturm in particular, an out-of-this-world violinist. If you met her in the street, you’d never guess she’s a true rock & roll star!

In fact, at some point during the set, Sturm played Overture together with Kennett on accordion. The beautiful classical piece is the opening track from Mellencamp’s 1986 studio album Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Among others, the instrumental includes part of the melody of Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First), a track from the same album. Sturm and Kennett extended the piece by adding a section from I Need a Lover, an early Mellencamp tune from 1979’s John Cougar. And since it is so amazing, here’s a clip I luckily found.

Last night’s show undoubtedly was one of the best concerts I’ve attended in recent years. If there is perhaps one thing I missed a bit, ironically, it was the lack of stripped down songs – tt really only came down to Easy Target and Jack & Diane. I say “ironically,” since while I’ve always loved Mellencamp’s 80s rockers, it did take me a while to fully appreciate the more acoustic, more bare bones type of music he has adopted in more recent years. Now I’ve also become a fan of the latter. For example, Indigo Sunset from Sad Clowns would have been a terrific addition to the set.

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube

Clips & Pix: John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter/Pink Houses

A Mellencamp classic from his 1983 studio album Uh-huh

Awesome clip of John Mellencamp’s Pink Houses performed together with Carlene Carter during a recent show from his ongoing Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour. While the song was written more than 30 years ago, its lyrics remain relevant in present-day America. I’m going the see the man in Philly this evening, so he’s very much on my mind!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube