What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube

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They All Went Down To Yasgur’s Farm, And Everywhere There Was Song And Celebration

…By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong/And everywhere was a song and a celebration/And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes/Riding shotgun in the sky/Turning into butterflies/Above our nation… (excerpt from Joni Mitchell tune Woodstock)

Next week is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which took place from August 15-18, 1969. Much has been written about this festival, which officially was titled the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The initiators Michael LangArtie KornfeldJoel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. The selection of the venue, which ended up being Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. The acts who were not invited or and those who were but chose to decline or didn’t make it there. The artists who performed at the event. The overcrowding with an audience exceeding 400,000 people, more than twice the 200,000 that had been expected, based on advance sales of 186,000 tickets. The mud bath conditions resulting from bad weather.

Woodstock Poster

As a huge fan of music from that era, it felt natural to commemorate this extraordinary moment in 20th Century entertainment history. At the same time, I did not want to create yet another write-up that recaps the history. Instead, this post focuses on what my blog is supposed to be all about: Music I love and therefore like to celebrate. Following are some performance highlights from Woodstock. Since I didn’t have strong feelings about a particular order, I decided to go chronologically.

Let’s kick it off with Richie Havens, the opening act on the first day, Friday, August 15, in the late afternoon, and his riveting performance of Freedom. It was an improvised encore based on the traditional spiritual Motherless Child. “When you hear me play that long intro, it’s me stalling. I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to sing?'” he later explained, according to Songfacts. “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person was sharing it, and so that word came out.” Sounds like a cool story.

Sweet Sir Galahad is a tune by Joan Baez. Like in other cases at Woodstock, her performance predated the actual recording and release of the song, which first appeared on her 1970 studio album One Day At A Time. BTW, when Baez played it at the festival, it was already past 1:00 am on Saturday, August 16. In order to squeeze the 32 acts into the three days, many artists ended up performing after midnight. As you might imagine, some weren’t exactly happy about it.

Undoubtedly, one of Woodstock’s highlights I’ve seen is Soul Sacrifice by Santana. The band played on Saturday afternoon. Credited to Carlos Santana (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards), David Brown (bass) and Marcus Malone (congas), Soul Sacrifice was included on the band’s eponymous studio debut album, released two weeks after their iconic appearance at the festival. I’ve watched this clip many times, and it continues to give me goosebumps. These guys were lightening up the stage. Live music doesn’t get much better than that. This appearance in and of itself already would have justified Santana’s place in music history. Of course, there was much more to come.

Moving on to Saturday evening brings us to blues rockers Canned Heat and their great tune On The Road Again. Co-credited to the band’s vocalist Alan Wilson, who also played harmonica and guitar, and blues artist Floyd Jones, the track was adapted from earlier blues songs. It first appeared on Canned Heat’s second studio album Boogie With Canned Heat released in January 1968. At Woodstock, it was the band’s closer of their set – what a way to wrap things up!

Next up: Born On The Bayou, one of the killer tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Written by John Fogerty, the song was included on CCR’s sophomore album Bayou Country from January 1969. The band was among the acts performing in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, August 17. I recall reading that Fogerty wasn’t happy with that time slot, saying the audience was half asleep. That’s why he refused CCR’s inclusion in the 1970 Woodstock documentary, something this band mates felt was a mistake, but John was the undisputed boss. However, footage of CCR is featured in an expanded 40th anniversary edition of the film, which came out in June 2009.

Another highlight of the early hours of Sunday was Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band. Here’s Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), the opener of Joplin’s third studio album I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! from September 1969. The song was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor. I don’t feel there was any way Joplin could have tried any harder to sing that song than she did. Similar to Santana, the energy of her performance was through the roof. And all of this after 2:00 am in the morning – whatever substance she was on, it apparently worked!

If I see this correctly (based on Wikipedia), the set with the most songs at Woodstock  belonged to The Who with 22 tracks. They kicked their gig off at 5:00 am on Sunday. Again, what a crazy thought to play at that time! Still, the kids certainly were alright. Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me, the final track from Tommy, the band’s fourth studio album that appeared in May 1969. Like most tunes on the record, it was written by Pete Townshend.

Apart from Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, perhaps the most iconic performance at Woodstock was With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker, the first act who officially opened the festival’s final day on Sunday afternoon. To me, Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ tune is the best rock cover I know. He truly made it his own. In fact, The Beatles were so impressed with it that they allowed him to cover more of their songs like She Came Into The Bathroom Window. With A Little Help From My Friends was the title track of Cocker’s debut album from May 1969. What an amazing performance!

On to 3:00 am on Monday, August 18 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. For the most part, including set opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, it was actually David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash only. Neil Young skipped most of the acoustic songs but joined the band during the electric set. Neil being Neil, he also refused to be filmed, feeling it was distracting to both the performers and the audience. Written by Stills, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was the opening track of CSN’s debut album from May 1969.

A post about Woodstock’s musical highlights wouldn’t be complete without the closing act: Jimi Hendrix. Playing on Monday from 9:00 to 11:00 am, it looks like he had the longest set. Here is his unforgettable rendition of the aforementioned The Star-Spangled Banner. Hendrix effectively used heavy guitar distortion, feedback and sustain to imitate the sounds from rockets and bombs. He truly gave it all he got and collapsed from exhaustion while leaving the stage after his encore Hey Joe.

Woodstock’s original co-creator Michael Lang also helped organize a planned 50th anniversary festival. However, after a series of production issues, venue relocations and artist cancellations, it was canceled on July 31, 2018. A second Woodstock anniversary festival was planned at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, but in February, the Center announced that instead it will focus on “A Season of Song & Celebration” for the entire summer. The anniversary dates coincide with concerts from Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band (Aug 16), Santana with The Doobie Brothers (Aug 17) and John Fogerty with Tedeshi Trucks Band & Grace Potter (Aug 18).

I’ll leave you with a little fun fact: Tickets for Santana with The Doobies start at about $128.00 (including fees). By today’s standards, sadly, this is fairly normal. But, to be clear, these tickets are the cheapest and will only get you the lawn, the area farthest away from the stage. By comparison, tickets for the entire Woodstock festival in 1969, which as noted above included 32 acts, sold for $18.00 in advance and $24.00 at the gate. That’s the equivalent of approximately $123.00 and $164.00 today. Once again, we see the times they are a changin!

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Syracuse.com, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts website, YouTube

Vocals In Perfect Harmony

I dig vocals. Great vocals. Especially multi-part harmony singing. Big time! As some visitors of the blog know, that’s why I sometimes can get a bit impatient when it comes to instrumentals. Don’t get me wrong, listing to such music can be very enjoyable. But after a while, I tend to start missing vocals. This gave me the idea to put together a post about tunes featuring great harmony singing.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat random list. I didn’t want to overthink it. Let’s kick it off with The Beach Boys. While I generally wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of their music, much of which sounds quite repetitive to my ears, especially their early tunes, I’ve always loved how these guys could harmonize. One example I like in particular is In My Room. Credited to music genius Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator, the track was included on the band’s third studio album Surfer Girl from September 1963. It also appeared separately as a single in October that year.

One of the first bands that comes to my mind when thinking about harmony vocals are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Boy, when they get into it, they sound like they came from some other planet. Here’s Carry On, the opener to CSNY’s amazing second studio record Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills wrote this song. Harmony singing doesn’t get much better than that, in my humble opinion!

Perhaps the next choice may surprise you: Huey Lewis and the News. Say what? While undoubtedly that band primarily was known for slick pop rock and hits like I Want A Drug and The Power Of Love, these guys could also sing. Don’t believe me? Check out their a cappella version of It’s Alright  – and, yes, have a good time! The song was first recorded in 1963 by The Impressions and written by the great Curtis Mayfield. Huey Lewis and the News recorded their a cappella cover in 1993 for a tribute album to Mayfield titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. No matter how you feel about Lewis, this take is just awesome!

Speaking of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, why don’t we throw in one of their other tunes and a clip of them performing it: People Get Ready. I’ve said it before and I’m not ashamed to say it again, sometimes music really moves me. And, yes, it can bring me to tears, depending on my mood. This is one of these tunes, which was the title tack of the band’s fourth studio album released in February 1965. It’s another composition by Mayfield.

A band I dig for both their music and their singing are the Eagles. One of the best illustrations of their vocal power I can think of is Seven Bridges Road. What I hadn’t known until now is that it’s not an Eagles tune, which for some reason I had always assumed. Nope, it was actually written by American country singer Steve Young in 1969. He also recorded it that year for his debut album Rock Salt & Nails. The Eagles version, which became the most popular cover of the song, was inspired by Iain Matthews’ take of the tune he recorded for his 1973 album Valley Hi. I realize, it’s a bit of a convoluted background story, but you have to give credit where credit is due. This finally brings me to the Eagles’ cover, which they recorded for their Eagles Live album from November 1980. It just sounds breathtaking!

If you looked at the image on top of the post, you already may guess what’s coming next – and last: The Temptations. I think to say that harmony singing doesn’t get better than that is not an overstatement. Their multi-part harmonies ranging from very low to very high are simply insane. Here’s Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).  And, no, this is not an illusion, though it sounds heavenly – is that a real word? In any case, co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and produced by Whitfield, the song first appeared as a single in January 1971. The tune was also included on the The Temptations’ 14th studio album Sky’s The Limit from April 1971. It became their third no. 1 in the U.S.

I realize there are many more songs I could have included. Feel free to let me know which tunes featuring harmony singing you like.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Raising Money For Parkinson’s Rocks

Light of Day Winterfest includes benefit concerts in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia

Listening to my favorite music live is an experience I greatly enjoy. I find it even more powerful when it also involves raising money for an important cause, such as fighting hunger, poverty or disease. Last Sunday, I attended a Light of Day Winterfest 2019 event at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. It was part of a series of regional concerts conducted between January 11 and January 21 to raise money for Parkinson’s disease and other related neurodegenerative disorders. My mother-in-law has had Parkinson’s for more than 10 years, which gave the event additional special meaning.

The annual series of concerts is the key fundraising vehicle of the Light of Day Foundation. According to its website, the New Jersey-based nonprofit funds research into possible cures, improved treatments and support for people living with Parkinson’s and related diseases and their caregivers. The foundation was established by music industry veteran and manager Bob Benjamin and some of his friends in 1998, shortly after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Light of Day is the title of a song written by Benjamin’s friend Bruce Springsteen for a 1987 motion picture with the same name.

The annual concerts have been held since 2000. Over the years, they grew from a one-day event in Asbury Park to a 10-day series of concerts held in different locations. In addition to the Jersey shore town, which remains the main hub, LOD Winterfest 2019 includes shows in Montclair, N.J., New York City, Philadelphia and Rockland County, N.Y. Light of Day concerts have also expanded beyond the U.S. to Canada, Australia and Europe. The most recent overseas shows took place in England, Germany, Switzerland and various other European countries in late November and December 2018.

Apart from Bruce Springsteen, who has appeared at various Light of Day concerts, other performers over the years have included prominent music artists, such as Southside Johnny, Jakob Dylan and Gary US Bonds, as well as numerous lesser known local artists. To date, Light of Day has raised more than $4.5 million for its support to find a cure for Parkinson’s.

Following are some clips I captured from the event, which mostly focused on tributes. I’d like to kick it off with The Bell Bottom Blues, a Jersey band that captures music by Eric Clapton. This includes his solo career and his work in bands like Cream, Blind Faith and Derek And The Dominoes. Here’s one of my favorite Cream tunes, White Room,  from Wheels Of Fire, Cream’s third studio album released in August 1968.

Bob Burger & Friends played a great Tom Petty tribute set. Burger is a singer-songwriter, who according to his website has about 40 published songs to his credit. He has opened for other artists like Meatloaf, Robert Palmer, Hootie And The Blowfish and Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes. Among others, Burger was joined by some of his band mates from The Weeklings, a tribute to The Beatles that apart from renditions plays originals inspired by The Fab Four. Here’s Refugee, which Petty recorded with The Heartbreakers for their excellent third studio album Damn The Torpedoes from October 1979.

Next up: CSN Songs, a great tribute to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. On their website, the seven-piece band characterizes itself as the only national CSN&Y tribute show of its kind. CSN Songs does a beautiful job at replicating CSN&Y’s four-part harmony vocals. Here’s their rendition of Woodstock, the classic Joni Mitchell tune CSN&Y recorded for their second album Déjà Vu that came out in March 1970.

The last band I’d like to highlight is Best Of The Eagles (BTOE). Previously, I had seen a couple of other Eagles tribute bands. While they were pretty good, BTOE has been the best so far. According to their website, BTOE were founded in 2012 by guitarist/vocalist Joe Vadala and a group of professional New Jersey musicians. In addition to Eagles songs, they also played Don Henley and Joe Walsh solo tunes, including a blistering rendition of Rocky Mountain Way. Here’s their take of Witchy Woman from the Eagles’ eponymous debut album released in June 1972.

During the current concert series the Light of Day Foundation aims to reach the $5.5 million mark in total fundraising. The schedule of remaining LOD Winterfest 2019 events is here.

Sources: Light of Day Foundation website, Wikipedia, The Bell Bottom Blues Facebook page, Bob Burger website, CSN Songs website, Best Of The Eagles website, YouTube

My Playlist: Music Artists Who Do It All

Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s

The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. All Music adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.

With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.

Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.

Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!

In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.

I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!

Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).

More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.

While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could  go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.

When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.

The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.

Sources: Wikipedia, All Music, Songfacts, YouTube

My Playlist: Pink Floyd

A long overdue tribute to one of my longtime favorite bands

Pink Floyd is one of my earliest music experiences dating back to the mid ’70s when I was nine or 10 years old and still living in Germany. It all started with Wish You Here, another record my sister had on vinyl – and yet another example where she introduced me, probably largely unconsciously, to music I still dig to this day. I’ve said it before and like to say it again: Thanks, sis, love you!

While I’ve mentioned Pink Floyd numerous times since I’ve started this blog more than two years ago, and I’ve written about Govt’ Mule’s great Dark Side of the Mule show and a fantastic Floyd tribute band called Echoes, I haven’t dedicated a post to the actual band – well, I suppose better late than never! Before getting to the music, I’d be amiss not to provide some background on the British rock band. Obviously, Pink Floyd’s history has been told many times, so if you know it already, just skip it and go right to the clips, and maybe grab some headphones – there’s plenty of great music here!

Pink Floyd emerged from a band called The Tea Set in London in 1965. After noticing there was another music outfit with the same name, guitarist and lead vocalist Syd Barrett came up with the idea to combine the first names of two blues musicians who were part of his record collection: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Sounds pretty arbitrary to me, but the result sure as keck was a cool-sounding band name! Initially, they performed as The Pink Floyd Sound and also included Richard (Rick) Wright (keyboards), Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums).

Pink Floyd Jan 1968
Pink Floyd in January 1968 (clockwise from the bottom): David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters & Rick Wright

By 1966, the band was starting to get paid gigs, mainly playing R&B standards. They dropped “Sound” from their name at the recommendation of Peter Jenner who together with his friend Andrew King had taken over the band’s management earlier that year. Gradually, The Pink Floyd’s set featured more original compositions by Syd Barrett, the band’s first artistic leader. In early 1967, The Pink Floyd signed with EMI and recorded their debut single Arnold Layne.

By the time Floyd released their first studio album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn in August 1967, they had dropped “The” from their name to become Pink Floyd. Barrett had developed a serious LSD habit and, according to Mason, “became completely distanced from everything going on.” Barrett’s behavior on stage became increasingly erratic, forcing a premature end of Pink Floyd’s U.S. tour in November 1967. The following month, guitarist David Gilmour became the band’s fifth member. Essentially, the idea was that he would play the guitar parts of Barrett who would continue to write music for the band.

Pink Floyd_Pipers At The Gates Of Dawn
Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, August 1967

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out and Barrett left in March 1968. The line-up that eventually would transform Pink Floyd to international super-stardom was in place! Waters effectively took over the band’s artistic direction for the next 15-plus years. During that period, they recorded ten additional albums, including two of the best-selling records of all time: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). By the time of the latter, Pink Floyd essentially had become a Roger Waters project. This created tension among the members and led to departures.

The first to leave was Rick Wright in the wake of the 1980-1981 tour that supported The Wall. Eventually, Waters called it quits himself in 1985 and declared Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively.” He then engaged in a legal battle with Gilmour and Mason over the next few years, trying to prevent them from continuing to use the Pink Floyd name. While things were settled long before then, it took Waters until 2013 to publicly admit he had been wrong about the lawsuit and to regret his ill-guided actions.

Pink Floyd At Live 8
Pink Floyd reunion at Live 8 (from left): David Gilmor, Roger Waters, Nick Mason & Richard Wright

Wright returned as a session musician for A Momentary Lapse Of Reason (1987), Pink Floyd’s first album in the post-Waters era. The band continued to tour and recorded one additional album during Wright’s lifetime, The Division Bell (1994). On July 2, 2005, Gilmour, Mason and Wright reunited one last time with Waters and performed as Pink Floyd at the Live 8 benefit concert in London.

On July 6, 2007, Syd Barrett died at the age of 60 after he had largely lived in seclusion for more than 35 years. Rick Wright passed away from cancer on September 15, 2008. He was 65 years old. In 2012, Gilmour and Mason decided to create one final Pink Floyd album, based on music that had been recorded with Wright during studio sessions for The Division Bell. Called The Endless River, the mostly instrumental record was released in November 2014. Now let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Arnold Layne, one of my favorite early songs The Pink Floyd released as their debut single in March 1967. Like pretty much all of the band’s original music during the Syd Barrett phase, the tune was written by the guitarist and lead vocalist.

Bike from The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, released in August 1967, is another Barrett composition. It’s both a bit weird and catchy at the same time. Two of the cool features I like are the sound collage toward the end, which resembles the turning gears of a bike, as well as the duck or geese-like sounding screams thereafter. According to Wikipedia, they were created with a tape loop of the band members laughing, played backwards and at double speed. Obviously, The Beatles weren’t the only band that effectively had started leveraging studio technology to their advantage during the second half of the ’60s.

In June 1968, Pink Floyd released their sophomore album A Saucerful Of Secrets. The early recording sessions still included Syd Barrett whose behavior and ability to perform had increasingly become less predictable. One of the tracks, for which he provided slide and acoustics guitars and background vocals is Remember A Day, a great composition by Rick Wright who also sang lead vocals, a rarity.

Next up is what over the years has become my favorite Pink Floyd track: The mighty  Echoes from the band’s sixth studio album Meddle that appeared in October 1971. Credited to all four members of the band and clocking in at more than 23 minutes, the epic tune comprises the entire second side of the vinyl LP. I realize only a hard core fan may listen to the entire clip, but that’s fine with me. I simply couldn’t leave out this one!

In March 1973, Pink Floyd released The Dark Side Of The Moon. With estimated worldwide sales of more than 45 million units, Floyd’s eighth studio album became their most commercially successful record. Here is The Great Gig In The Sky featuring the amazing vocals of Clare Torry, who is co-credited for the tune together with Rick Wright. This track still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. BTW, as I wrote this, it happened to be on the radio as part of Q104.3’s countdown of the 1,043 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time. While one can argue endlessly why certain songs make the list and their ranking positions, it’s a fun listening experience. I’ve written about the radio station’s annual tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday before, most recently here. BTW, The Great Gig In The Sky came in at no. 829 – way, way, way too low!😀

Have A Cigar was Roger Waters’ biting critique of hypocrisy and greed in the music industry. It appeared on Pink Floyd’s ninth studio album, the above mentioned Wish You Were Here from September 1975. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: I’ve always had a deep respect and I mean that most sincere/The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think/Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink? The lead vocals were provided by English folk rock singer Roy Harper, making it the only Floyd tune besides The Great Gig In The Sky that wasn’t sung by one of their members.

In January 1977, Pink Floyd’s tenth studio album Animals appeared. Loosely based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the concept album criticizes the social and political conditions in the U.K. at the time – two years before the leader of the Conservative Party Margaret Thatcher would become Prime Minister and a favorite target of Roger Waters. Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, Sheep, which like most tunes was solely written by Waters.

Perhaps the Pink Floyd song with the most epic guitar solo is Comfortably Numb, which was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. It appeared on the band’s 11th studio album The Wall, which came out in November 1979.

In September 1987, Pink Floyd released A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, their first record of the post-Waters area. Initially, David Gilmour set out to make it his third solo album, but things changed along the way. The record featured Nick Mason and Rick Wright, who was among the many guest musicians. Wright would later return to the band as a full member. Here’s the album’s closer Sorrow, which was written by Gilmour.

The last song I’d like to highlight is called High Hopes from Pink Floyd’s 14th studio album The Division Bell. Released in March 1994, it was the band’s final record issued during the lifetime of Rick Wright. He had an active role in writing much of the music with David Gilmour, while Gilmor’s  fiancée and novellist Polly Samson co-wrote many of the lyrics. High Hopes was credited to Gilmour and Samson.

Pink Floyd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. They also made the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. As of 2013, they had sold more than 250 million records worldwide, not only making them one of the most influential but also one of the most commercially successful bands of all time. While I don’t believe we will see another reincarnation of Pink Floyd, I’ve not doubt I’ll continue to enjoy their music, hopefully for many more years to come.

To those who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: America/ History: America’s Greatest Hits

America’s vocal harmonies and smooth folk rock sound make for one of the best ’70s greatest hits compilations

I was nine or 10 years old when I listened to History: America’s Greatest Hits for the first time. The album grabbed me right from the beginning. It was one of the vinyl records my older sister had, which among others also included Carole King’s Tapestry; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu; and Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits – all albums I dig to this day.

Recently, I rediscovered History. To me, it’s one of the best greatest hits compilations I know, which were released in the ’70s. Others that come to my mind are Neil Young’s Decade, Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), Santana’s Greatest HitsSteely Dan’s Greatest Hits and the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel album. There are probably some others I’m forgetting – in any case, it’s not meant to be a complete list.

I recall reading somewhere that America were dismissed by some as a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young knock-off. While I generally don’t think highly of music critics in the first place, I feel this notion is silly. Yes, America’s three-part harmony vocals are reminiscent of CSN/CSNY, but this doesn’t make them a copycat or somehow bad artists! On the contrary, if anything, the vocal similarity to CSN/CSNY is a huge accomplishment – after all, there aren’t many bands that can harmonize like CSN/CSNY did! On to History.

America
America (from left): Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek & Dewey Bunnell

Released in November 1975, History encompasses America’s 11 most successful singles at the time, plus an edited take of Sandman from their December 1971 eponymous debut. In addition to that album, History includes material from four additional studio records: Homecoming (November 1972), Hat Trick (October 1973), Holiday (June 1974) and Hearts (March 1975).

History opens with one of my favorite America tunes: A Horse With No Name from their debut album. It was written by Dewey Bunnell, who formed America with Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley in London in 1970. The three had met there in the mid-’60s as high school students whose fathers were stationed on a nearby U.S. Air Force base.

A Horse With No Name became America’s most successful single topping the Billboard Hot 100. It also stirred some controversy due to the similarity of Bunnell’s voice to Neil Young, and what some viewed as mediocre lyrics. Coincidentally, the song knocked Young’s Heart Of Gold off the Billboard Hot 100 top spot. I really don’t care whether it sounds like Young, who by the way is one of my favorite artists. With its two chords and killer harmony vocals, this tune simply gives me goosebumps each time I hear it.

Ventura Highway, another Bunnell composition, is from the Homecoming album. When I listen to this song and close my eyes, I can literally picture myself in an open convertible driving on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from L.A. up north to San Francisco. I actually did that trip in 1980 as a 14-year-old, together with my parents. Even though we had a lame station wagon as a rental, not some hot convertible, it was an unforgettable experience! Ventura Highway became a top 10 Billboard single for America, reaching no. 8 and no. 3 on the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, respectively.

Another beautiful tune is Lonely People, which was credited to Dan Peek and his wife Catherine Peek. The song was written a few weeks after their marriage. An obituary in TMR that appeared in the wake of Peek’s death in July 2011 at the age of 60 quotes him: “I wrote it probably within a month of getting married to my long-lost love Catherine…I always felt like a melancholy, lonely person. And now I felt like I’d won.” America  initially recorded Lonely People for their fourth studio album Holiday. It topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart and peaked at no. 5 on the Hot 100.

One of my favorite songs on History written by Gerry Beckley is Sister Golden Hair. Recorded for America’s fifth studio album Hearts, the tune also became the band’s second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics were inspired by Jackson Browne. In this context, John Corbett’s America Revisited quotes Beckley: “Jackson Browne has a knack, an ability to put words to music, that is much more like the L.A. approach to just genuine observation as opposed to simplifying it down to its bare essentials… and it was that style of his which led to a song of mine, “Sister Golden Hair,” which is probably the more L.A. of my lyrics.” I guess this means in addition to CSN/CSNY, America also stole from Browne – unbelievable!

The last song I’d like to call out is the final track on the History compilation: Woman Tonight. It’s another tune from the Hearts album and was written by Peek. Released as the third single, it charted within the top 50 in the U.S.

History was produced by none other than George Martin, who had started working with America on their fourth studio album Holiday. Martin also remixed the first seven tracks on History, which he had not produced originally. The compilation became a huge success in the U.S., giving America a no. 3 on the Billboard 200. In October 1986, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the album 4X Multi-Platinum.

Since History, America have released 12 additional studio albums, 10 live records and numerous other compilations. Now in their 48th year, America continue to perform, featuring co-founders Beckley and Bunnell. Peek left the band in May 1977, long before his death, after he had renewed his Christian faith.

The band’s current tour schedule on their website is filled with dates until January 2019. After playing the MTV music festival Gibraltar Calling in the British overseas territory on September 21, the band is off to a series of gigs in the U.S., including Denver (Sep 27), Emporia, KS (Sep 28), Dodge City, KS (Sep 29), San Jose (Oct 4) and San Diego (Oct 5),  before going back over the Atlantic to Israel and doing some shows in Europe.

Sources: Wikipedia; TMR; John Corbett: “America Revisited”, AccessBackstage.com, May 29, 2004; RIAA Gold & Platinum certifications; America website; YouTube