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

Neil Young Releases New Album With Crazy Horse

Young’s first new studio album with Crazy Horse since 2012 marks continuation of 50-year collaboration

I almost would have missed the new album by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, even though I previously wrote about Milky Way, the lead single that came out in late August. Colorado was released on October 25 while I was in Germany for a short trip. Young’s first new album with Crazy Horse since Psychedelic Pill from October 2012 in many ways sounds like a typical Neil album with the band: rugged and spontaneous. While it appeals to me and I suspect others digging Neil Young, I’m not sure it will gain him new fans. There is no obvious hit. But with Young being strong-willed and fiercely independent, I also suspect he doesn’t care.

One significant difference compared to previous Crazy Horse albums is the absence of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. The band’s guitarist since 1975, who gave Crazy Horse a rawer, more edgy sound and became a frequent collaborator of Young, confirmed his retirement to Uncut earlier this year, as reported by Rolling Stone. Sampedro has been replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren isn’t exactly a stranger. He played together with Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, Crazy Horse’ bassist and drummer, respectively, on Young’s 1975 studio album Tonight’s The Night. He was also part of Crazy Horse’s eponymous debut album from February 1971, which the band recorded without Young.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse
From left: Billy Talbot, Neil Young, Nils Lofgren & Ralph Molina

Lofgren doesn’t appear to take things for granted. “It’s been a beautiful opportunity to play with dear friends that are still alive and well,” he told Rolling Stone. “Look, I hope there’s more, but I’ll take it a gig at a time right now.” Of course, Lofgren is also a member of the E Street Band, and Bruce Springsteen has confirmed plans for a new album with the band and a 2020 tour, as reported by NME. Let’s get to some music from Colorado, which by the way was recorded over an 11-day span this April at a studio in the Rocky Mountains at close to 9,000 feet – I suspect another difference to previous Crazy Horse albums!

Here’s the opener Think Of Me, which to me sounds more like a Neil Young solo tune. Like all tracks on the record, the song was written by him. The tune also sets up the album’s overall theme: Climate change and man-made environmental degradation. In addition to Young on guitar, harmonica and lead vocals, Talbot on bass and Molina on drums, the track features Lofgren on piano. Perhaps you thought Lofgren “only” is a guitarist. Nope, he’s a multi-instrumentalist who apart from guitar and piano/keyboards also plays accordion, pedal steel guitar and banjo. Not to imply anything negative here, but he certainly is no Sampedro!

So where’s some of that rugged sound I mentioned above? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Olden Days. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Lofgren noted the initial plan had been for him to play acoustic guitar and accordion on the tune, but right before the band was supposed to record the track, Young suggested a heavier electric sound. “Right away, the song took on a more muscular, Crazy Horse vibe and it wasn’t forced,” Lofgren said. “That set the tempo for the rest of what we did.”

Green Is Blue is another gentle sounding tune, though Young’s message is everything but gentle: …We heard the warning calls, ignored them/We saw the weather change, we saw the fires and floods/We saw the people rise, divided/We fought each other while we lost our coveted prize…The song also features Lofgren on yet another instrument: vibraphone.

On Shut It Down, the band resumes a more muscular electric sound and Young is back with more dire warnings about environmental deterioration driven by human ignorance: …Have to shut the whole system down/All around the planet/There’s a blindness that just can’t see/Have to shut the whole system down/They’re all wearing climate change/As cool as they can be

The last tune I’d like to call out, I Do, is on the quieter side again. And there are more lyrics about environmental change. But two aspects regarding the instrumentation are new and intriguing: Lofgren on pump organ and Young on glass harmonica.

Asked by NPR about his philosophy that recording music isn’t about reaching perfection, Young pointed out, “We’re thinking about making it sound real, like you can feel that this means something to the people playing it. We’re not trying to impress anybody.” He also distinguished between rawness and imperfection and what he called a sound quality that’s as pure as possible. “They’re two totally different things. The raw thing that we create is the soul of music and the stories and the feelings of being human. The technical thing that happens is trying to capture that. If you try to capture that and you use tools that are less precise, then you get less of it. You know the feeling that you have when you hear something that’s really great and it touches your soul? The chances of it really touching your soul are much better if you hear all of it.”

Young has been pretty busy in recent years. Colorado is his fourth album since Peace Trail from December 2017. Apart from archiving all of his recordings on his website neilyoungarchives.com, he recently released Mountaintop, a film about the making of Colorado. It played in select theatres across the country on October 22. Here’s the trailer. Young is also working on 13 other films – gee! Moreover, on September 10, he published To Feel The Music, a book about his quest to bring high quality audio back to music lovers via his Pono music player.

Had it not been for the unexpected death of Elliot Roberts, who had been Young’s manager since 1967(!) and passed away on June 21 this year, Young probably would have announced a tour to support the new album. But as Lofgren told Rolling Stone, Young needs to adjust to a world without Elliot, so he has no present plans to hit the road with Crazy Horse. Colorado, which was produced by John Hanlon and Young, is dedicated to Roberts.

Sources: Wikipedia; Genius; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young with Crazy Horse/Milky Way

Today, Neil Young released Milky Way, the lead single from his upcoming album Colorado, the first with his long-time backing band Crazy Horse in seven years. The shaky voice, the ragged guitar sound and the overall style very much sound like classic Neil to me!

Based on Apple Music/iTunes, the album is slated for October 25 via Reprise Records and includes 10 tracks. In late April, a post on the Neil Young Archives website noted, “We believe we have a great Crazy Horse album, one to stand alongside ‘Everybody Know’s this is nowhere’, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, Sleeps With Angels’, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ and all the others” (quote includes typos! 🙂 )

The current line-up of Crazy Horse features Neil Young (guitars, vocals, piano, vibes, harmonica), Nils Lofgren (guitars, vocals, pump organ), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals) and Billy Talbot (bass, vocals). Talbot and Molina are original members of the band. Lofgren replaced Frank “Poncho” Sampedro who joined Crazy Horse in 1975 and retired last year.

Sources: Neil Young Archives, Apple Music, Pitchfork, YouTube