When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube

It Was 35 Years Ago

A look back on Live Aid benefit concert – Part 3

The last part of this mini-series reviews highlights from the U.S. portion of Live Aid at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Things there got underway at close to 9:00 a.m. EDT (2:00 p.m. BST) on July 13, 1985. The British concert at London’s Wembley Stadium ended at 10 pm BST (5:00 pm EDT). As such, both shows overlapped by eight hours. Unfortunately, this meant viewers could not see all artist performances on their television broadcasts.

The Philly concert included reunions of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne and The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson. It also featured a less than stellar appearance of Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who were joined by Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums.

With Page’s guitar out of tune and Plant’s hoarse voice, unfortunately, it was one of Zep’s poorest performances. Later, Page blamed the drumming of Collins who had played at Wembley earlier and traveled to the U.S. by supersonic jet, so he could perform in Philly as well – the only artist who pulled off that stunt. It seems to me the reality of the fiasco was a combination of factors, including lack of rehearsal, some technical challenges and probably a portion of bad luck.

While white artists were well represented at Live Aid, the same cannot be said for artists of color, especially at Wembley, where I believe only two performed: Sade and Brandon Marsalis – a bit of an oddity for a charity concert put on for the African nation of Ethiopia. The U.S. did better in this regard. The show line-up featured The Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Run-D.M.C., Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle, as well as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations. In addition, U.S.A. for Africa performed their charity single We Are the World, which included additional artists of color, such as Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte and Dionne Warwick.

Let’s kick off this last part with one of the above noted reunions: Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s Paranoid, the epic title track of the band’s sophomore album from September 1970. The music was credited to all members of Sabbath, while the lyrics were written by bassist Geezer Butler.

One of my favorite bands performing in Philly were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They closed their mini-set with Refugee, one of their best songs, in my opinion. Co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, the tune is from Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s third studio album released in October 1979. It also became the record’s second single that appeared in January 1980.

Neil Young is another of my all-time favorite artists. Here is Powderfinger, a beloved tune among Young fans. He first recorded the song for his live album Rust Never Sleeps from June 1979. It was also included on various other live albums he released thereafter.

As a fan of Cream, of course, I couldn’t skip Eric Clapton and his rendition of White Room. Composed by Jack Bruce with lyrics by poet Pete Brown, the classic tune was included on Wheels of Fire, Cream’s third studio album that appeared in August 1968.

The last clip I’d like to call out is a great medley of tunes by The Temptations performed by Hall & Oates, together with Eddie Kendricks und David Ruffin: Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and My Girl, which all first appeared as singles. Get Ready from February 1966 was penned by Smokey Robinson. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, co-written by Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., came out in May 1966. And My Girl was first released in December 1964. Robinson and Ronald White wrote that tune together.

While you may not agree with Bob Geldof who in his introduction to Live Aid 35 said it was commonly called the ‘greatest concert of all time,’ I think there can be no doubt Live Aid was a one of a kind event. Sure, there were other historic concerts like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival that brought together many of the leading music artists at the time. One must also mention the Concert for Bangladesh, the first benefit music event of significant magnitude. But none of these concerts came anywhere close to Live Aid in terms of audience reach and logistics – and in the case of the Concert for Bangladesh the scale of fundraising.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Here’s the latest installment of my recurring new music feature. It nicely illustrates that great new music isn’t a matter of age. In fact, I’ve said it all along: Old guys rock! 🙂 Three of the following artists have been around for 50 years, while the remaining three represent a younger generation. There’s some blues rock, coz you rarely can go wrong with it; some prog and art rock; some post punk rock; and some indie rock and pop. Let’s get to it!

Walter Trout/Wanna Dance

Long-time blues rocker Walter Trout, who originally hails from Ocean City, N.J., is a survivor – literally. He started his music career on the Jersey shore scene in the late 1960s. After relocating to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, the guitarist became a sideman for John Lee Hooker, Percy Mayfield, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex, among others. From 1981 to 1984, Trout was the lead guitarist for Canned Heat. In 1984, he joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and, as he noted during a recent one-hour online chat, it was Mayall who encouraged him not to copy other previous Bluesbreakers’ lead guitarists like Peter Green and Eric Clapton but to develop his own style. Trout did, left the Bluesbreakers in 1989 and launched his solo career. He has since released more than 20 albums. In 2014, things got dicey when Trout was diagnosed with liver failure – likely a result from alcohol and substance abuse he overcame in the ’80s. A liver transplant saved his life just in time. After a long recovery, Trout was able to return to music, which as he has said is the only thing he could ever do. Released on June 12, Wanna Dance is a great blues rocker from Ordinary Madness, an upcoming album of all original music, scheduled for August 28. I saw Trout in New York City in April 2019 and witnessed firsthand he is a compelling, no BS artist. Really looking forward to this record!

Ohmme/Flood Your Gut

Ohmme (formerly know as Homme) are an indie rock band from Chicago formed in 2014 by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalists Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart. In 2016, Matt Carroll joined the two young women on drums. Apple Music characterizes them as “an experimental indie pop band who use their striking vocal harmonies and lean, angular guitar patterns to create songs that are spare but full-bodied, making clever use of dynamics to generate a rich sound out of a small number of elements” – jeez, you wonder whether they pay reviewers by the number of words they stick in one sentence! Ohmme takes the opposite approach on their Facebook page: “An experiment with voice, guitar, and sound.” The band released their debut single in November 2015, followed by an eponymous EP in 2017. Flood Your Gut is the opener to Ohmme’s new (second) studio album Fantasize Your Ghost, released on June 5. Admittedly, the somewhat monotonous trance-inducing sound of this tune didn’t grab me immediately, but the more often I listen to it, the more I dig it – there’s something weirdly catchy about it!

Kansas/Jets Overhead

American rock band Kansas may have formed in the early ’70s, but evidently, they aren’t dust in the wind yet. Frankly, I wasn’t aware the band is still active. Granted, Kansas have gone through many lineup changes in their 50-year history; if I see this correctly, it appears guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Erhart are the only remaining founding members, who have been on all of the band’s 15 studio releases that came out between 1974 and 2016, as well as their upcoming album The Absence of Presence, scheduled for July 17. I’m mostly familiar with Kansas’ better known tunes like Carry On Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind, Point of No Return and Play the Game Tonight. I oftentimes feel rock that’s based on simple guitar riffs is best and consider the fantastic Carry On Wayward Son as an exception that proves the rule. Jets Overhead, which was written by guitarist Zak Rizvi and appeared on June 5, is the third track released ahead of the album. You rarely hear a violin solo in a rock song these days. Sounds pretty good to me!

Phoebe Bridgers/Graceland Too

Phoebe Bridgers is a Los Angeles-based 25-year-old singer-songwriter. Apple Musics characterization of her music as “folk-based” with “a dreamy and hook-filled indie pop heart” sounds right to me. Apart from her solo work, she’s also a member of indie rock band Boygenius and performs with Conor Oberst in indie rock duo Better Oblivion Community Center. In March 2014, Bridgers released her debut, an EP cheerfully titled Killer. Following what appears to be a live album, 2016 Tour CD, her first full-length studio release Stranger in the Alps appeared in September 2017. Graceland Too is a country-flavored tune from Bridgers’ sophomore album Punisher, which came out on June 18. This song has a beautiful warm sound that nicely blends with Bridgers’ voice.

Elvis Costello/No Flag

Released June 5, No Flag is the first new song by Elvis Costello since Purse, an EP from April 2019, featuring four previously unreleased songs recorded with his band the Imposters. According to a news announcement, Costello recorded No Flag alone in Finland in February this year. “I wanted to go somewhere nobody knew me,” he explained. “So, this is ‘The Helsinki Sound.’” The announcement also asks readers to “look out for the next installment of this story on July 10th” – perhaps a hint to a forthcoming new album? With an unsettling melody and dark lyrics like No time for this kind of love/No flag waving high above/No sign for the dark place that I live/No God for the damn that I don’t give, the timing of the release during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly doesn’t look like a coincidence.

JJ Wilde/Cold Shoulder

JJ Wilde is a singer-songwriter hailing from Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, which is located about 60 miles of Toronto. Wilde started writing and playing guitar during her teenage years. Despite a massive amount of songs and gigging, she apparently struggled in the early part of her career, and ended up working three jobs. When Wilde about to give up music professionally in 2018, she finally got a break, signing with Black Box Recordings. Last year, her debut EP Wilde Eyes, Steady Hands appeared. Ruthless, Wilde’s first full album, was released on June 12. “This album has felt like a long time coming, and no time at all,” wrote Wilde on her Facebook page. “Most of the inspiration for the album came from an apartment I lived in two years before I started this journey. I was in a dark place, and was very unsure of where my life was going. Almost 4 years later, with countless shows, tours, travelling, writing sessions, I now feel like this album is the complete first draft of an inside look into my world.” Here’s Cold Shoulder. I like this melodic rocker – check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ohmme Facebook page; Kansas website; Elvis Costello website; JJ Wilde Facebook page; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Toto/The Seventh One

I fully expect Toto is going to elicit different reactions from readers, ranging from excellent to rather mediocre. Let there be no doubt where I stand: While like every band some of Toto’s songs were more compelling than others, overall, I really dig these guys for their outstanding musicianship and, yes, many of their catchy and well executed pop-rock tunes. The Seventh One from March 1988 is probably my favorite album.

My initial introduction to Toto was Hold the Line, a track from their eponymous debut album from October 1978. It was included on a compilation titled The Rock Album – The Best of Today’s Rock Music, which came out in 1980. A friend gave it to me as a present on music cassette. Then came Toto IV from April 1982, and songs like Rosanna, Africa and I Won’t Hold You Back, which each received extensive radio play in Germany. I was hooked!

Toto’s next two albums, Isolation and Fahrenheit from October 1984 and August 1986, respectively, didn’t excite me as much. As a result, the band started fading a bit from my radar screen. And then The Seventh One was released. I dug this album right from the get-go.

Since Toto IV, the band’s line-up had changed. Lead vocalist Bobby Kimball and bassist David Hungate, who were both part of Toto’s initial members, had been replaced by Joseph Williams and Mike Porcaro, respectively. But frankly, I don’t feel this impacted the quality of the album at all. Let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the opener Pamela, co-written by David Paich (keyboards, backing vocals) and Joseph Williams. The tune was also released separately as the lead single in February 1988 ahead of the album. Apart from its catchy melody, I dig Jeff Pocaro’s drums part in particular including the cool breaks. To me, Pocaro was one of the best drummers in rock and pop. Of course, the caveat here is I don’t play the drums myself. But I suppose if you were good enough to pass the audition for perfectionists Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, you must have been a bloody good drummer! Not to mention countless other top-notch artists like Eric Clapton, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen, to name a few.

Here’s a tune guitarist Steve Lukather considers to be one of his best compositions: Anna. He co-wrote the ballad with Randy Goodrum, an American songwriter, pianist and producer. In August 1988, it also became the album’s third single.

Stop Loving You with its upbeat groove just is an infectious pop song. Co-written by Lukather and Paich, the track also appeared as the album’s fourth single. While it did well in Europe, hitting no. 2 in each The Netherlands and Belgium and reaching no. 37 in Italy, it didn’t chart in the U.S. Here’s the official video.

Ready for some rock? How about that and with a little help from Linda Ronstadt on vocals and some smoking lap steel guitar by David Lindley? Here’s Stay Away, another Paich-Lukather co-write. Perhaps, they should have released that one as a single!

And since it’s so much fun, how about another pop rocker: Only the Children, co-written by Paich, Lukather and Williams.

Let’s end things on a quieter note with another ballad: A Thousand Years. I actually would have bet that Lukather had a role in writing the tune. But nope, it was co-written by Williams, Paich and Mark Towner Williams.

While Toto and Columbia Records were confident The Seventh One was one of the band’s strongest albums to date, its chart performance remained far below expectations. In part, Wikipedia attributes this to upheaval at the record company with president Al Teller’s departure right in the wake of Pamela’s release. Apparently, this led to waning promotion of the song that ended up stalling at no. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 – not exactly terrible, but certainly a huge difference to Africa and Rosanna, which had peaked at no. 1 and no. 2 in the U.S., respectively. Of course, chart performance is a double-edged indicator to begin with. Just look at today’s charts!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell Releases New Album

“Reunions” may have been his most challenging record to make so far

While I had heard of Jason Isbell before and listened to some of his past music, I had not taken a closer look at the singer-songwriter from Green Hill, Ala., who at age 41 has experienced both remarkable success and full-blown addiction to alcohol and cocaine in his late ’20s. Both sides of his story provide important context for Reunions, Isbell’s new album, which he recorded with his backing band The 400 Unit. It was broadly released yesterday, May 15.

Apparently, Isbell grew up in a musical family. His grandfather and uncle showed him how to play various instruments. As a 6-year-old, he learned the mandolin, and in high school, he played the trumpet and French horn. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the guitar and started playing in a garage band and a country cover band. Eventually, he met session bassist David Horn, whose son Patterson Hood was a co-founder of alternative country and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. When he was 21, Isbell got a publishing deal with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where he worked until he joined Drive-By-Truckers the following year during their supporting tour for their third studio album Southern Rock Opera.

Isbell stayed for six years and recorded three studio albums with the band, contributing guitar and vocals, and writing some of their songs. During these years with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell developed his alcohol and cocaine addiction. Apparently, it did not slow him down much. Following his departure from the band in April 2007, Isbell wasted no time to launch a solo career and released his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch in July that year.

Jason Isbell

The 400 Unit, weirdly named after a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in Florence, Ala., came together for Isbell’s sophomore album Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit released in February 2009. Two years later, Isbell agreed to enter a rehab program at a Nashville facility. He managed to overcome his addiction and has been sober since. In February 2013, Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires. Since 2011, she had been a guest on his albums and eventually became a member of The 400 Unit. In parallel, Shires continued to pursue her solo career. In 2019, she also formed country band The Highwomen. Isbell played guitar on their eponymous debut album, which appeared last September.

Since Isbell got out of drug rehab, he won many accolades for his music, which among others include four Grammy awards and various Americana Music Honors & Awards. They turned out to be a mixed blessing when making his new album. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” Isbell told The New York Times. “You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”

Jasom Isbell & Amanda Shires
Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires

The pressure took a toll on his marriage and at some point prompted Shires to move to a motel, since she felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she noted to The New York Times. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed.” So with all the drama surrounding the album, how did it turn out? Pretty good, in my opinion, though one hopes this outcome happened despite the aforementioned challenges, not because of them. Let’s get to some music!

Here is the opener What’ve I Done to Help. Like all of the remaining nine tracks on the album, the tune was written by Isbell. “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record,” Isbell told Apple Music. “It’s a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it’s also a positive message: Most of what I’m talking about on this album is trying to be aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself.” BTW, none other than David Crosby provides harmony vocals on the tune!

In Overseas, Isbell was trying to write a song that’s about multiple things at once, which he views as a big challenge. “On the one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country they’re living in and moved on and left a family behind,” he explained to Apple Music. “And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months.” Apparently, the song was inspired by Eric Clapton, who once said in an interview he didn’t feel he would ever be a great songwriter since he wasn’t able to write allegorically. “I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that,” Isbell said, “and it stuck with me.”

Running With Your Eyes Closed has a little bit of a Mark Knopfler guitar vibe, which is definitely part of the reason it speaks to me. According to Isbell, “It’s a love song, but I really try hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs of the initial spark of a relationship – that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don’t know that I would have anything new to bring.” I really dig the sound of this track. Check it out!

One of the most personal tracks on the album is It Gets Better. “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything,” Isbell explained. “And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep’. But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it’s important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I’ve finally gotten to the point now where I don’t really hate that guy anymore, and I think that’s even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor.”

Let’s do one more. Here’s the closer Letting You Go, a tune Isbell wrote for his four-year-old daughter, recalling her as a baby and fast-forwarding to picture her getting married and leaving the house. Well, that certainly looks like a big jump into the future; then again, time flies, as I can attest when it comes to my own son who is 18 now – how did that happen so quickly? “Once, when my daughter was very little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you’,” Isbell reflected. “And that’s the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process.” He clearly is very attached to the little girl.

Reunions is Isbell’s fourth straight album produced by Dave Cobb, who has also produced for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine, among others. In addition to Shires (fiddle, backing vocals), The 400 Unit features Sadler Vaden (guitar, backing vocals), Jimbo Hart (bass, backing vocals), Derry DeBorja (keyboard, accordion, backing vocals) and Chad Gamble (drums, backing vocals).

So what does David Crosby think about Isbell? “Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” he commented to The New York Times. “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” Hopefully, Crosby’s praise won’t put additional pressure on Isbell when comes to making his next record. As strange as it sounds, it might actually be a good thing for Isbell if he doesn’t get a ton of accolades for Reunions!

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; Apple Music; YouTube

My Playlist: Bob Marley

In my case, reggae is a bit like jazz: I don’t dislike it but listen to it infrequently. When I do, the artist I keep coming back to is Bob Marley. My best friend who I’m fortunate to still call that way to this day got me into Marley with Babylon by Bus. It must have been around 1980 when he bought that excellent live album by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I recorded the double-LP right away on music cassette and it quickly became a favorite. Since I didn’t throw out my MCs and don’t think I ever will, the tape must still be floating around somewhere.

Bob Marley was born as Robert Nesta Marley on the farm of his maternal grandfather in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica on February 6, 1945. While his father Norval Sinclair Marley provided financial support, Bob rarely saw him. Two years after Norval’s death, his mother Cedella Malcolm moved with then 12-year-old Bob to Trenchtown, a low-income community in the Jamaican capital of Kingston. There, Cedella had a daughter with Thadeus Livingston, the father of Neville Livingston who later became known as Bunny Wailer.

Bob Marley

In the late 1950s, a new music genre called ska became popular in Jamaica, combining elements of Caribbean music with American jazz and R&B. By the mid-’60s, ska evolved into rock steady, the predecessor to reggae. The main characteristic feature all three music styles share is the rhythmic accentuation on the offbeat. Based on my understanding, one difference is tempo. While ska generally is fairly upbeat, rock steady has a slower beat, which tends to be further slowed down in reggae. It is that laid back groove of the latter I particularly dig.

In 1963, Bob Marley and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) started taking vocal lessons with local singer Joe Higgs who introduced them to Winston Hubert McIntosh, who became known as Peter Tosh. Higgs also taught Marley how to play the guitar. The trio formed the core of what would become The Wailers. They were soon joined by Junior Braithwaite (vocals), as well as backing vocalists Cherry Smith and Beverley Kelso.

Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Bunny Livingston 1964
From left: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beverley Kelso and Bunny Wailer ca. 1964

In December 1963, The Wailers released their first single Simmer Down, backed by ska group The Skatalites. By February 1964, the tune had hit no. 1 in Jamaica. The band’s debut album The Wailing Wailers appeared in late 1965. Only released on the island, it essentially was a compilation of tunes previously recorded in 1964 and 1965. The Wailers’ first album released outside of Jamaica was their sophomore Soul Rebels from December 1970.

Following the depature of Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in 1974, Marley continued as Bob Marley and the Wailers, with Marley on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. The Wailers at that time featured Aston Barrett (bass), Carlton Barrett (drums, percussion), Bernard Harvey (piano, organ), Jean Roussel (keyboards) and Al Anderson (lead guitar), along with the so-called I-Threes, a backing vocal trio consisting of Marley’s wife Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths – quite an army!

Bob Marley and the Wailers live

In July 1977, a malignant melanoma lesion was found under one of Marley’s toe nails. Due to his Rastafari beliefs and out of concern it would disrupt touring, Marley did not follow the medical advice to have his toe amputated and instead chose less invasive treatment. Unfortunately, it is safe to assume his decision most likely cost him his life less than four years later. On May 11, 1981, Marley passed away at a U.S. hospital in Miami at the age of 36. The cancer had spread throughout his body.

Altogether, Marley released 11 studio and two live albums during his lifetime. His posthumous greatest hits compilation Legend from May 1984 became the best-selling reggae album of all time, with sales in the U.S. and worldwide exceeding 15 million and 28 million copies, respectively. At an estimated total of more than 75 million sold records, Marley also ranks as one of the best-selling artists. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at no. 11 on their 2007 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Let’s get to some music!

I’m skipping Marley’s early stage, since I’m not well familiar with it. Instead, I’d like to kick things off with Stir It Up, a Bob Marley tune that was included on The Wailers’ fifth studio album Catch a Fire from April 1973. It proved to be a good title – together with a supporting tour of England and the U.S., the record helped put the band on the map internationally.

In October 1973, The Wailers released their sixth studio album Burnin’, the last with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. The lead single was the Marley-penned I Shot the Sheriff, which reached no. 67 in the UK and didn’t chart in the U.S. at all – that is until 1974, when Eric Clapton scored a major international hit with a great cover version. It topped the charts in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, and was a top 10 in the UK and various other European countries. Similar to Cream and The Rolling Stones, who elevated African-American blues artists in the ’60s, Clapton’s cover significantly raised Marley’s international profile.

One of Marley’s best-known tunes is No Woman, No Cry, which he initially recorded for Natty Dread, the first album released as Bob Marley and the Wailers in October 1974. According to Rolling Stone, which included the song at no. 37 in their 2011 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Marley gave the official songwriting credit to his friend Vincent Ford to help keep Ford’s Kingston soup kitchen running. The most popular version of that song appeared on Live!, the first live album by Marley and the band from December 1975, which captured a gig in London in July that year. That version also came out seperately as a single and peaked at no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart, marking the band’s first top 10 hit in Britain.

Rastaman Vibration was Bob Marley’s first album to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200, climbing to no. 8. Released in April 1976, it reached no. 15 in the UK and no. 26 in New Zealand. Here’s the opener Positive Vibration, another tune credited to Marley’s friend Vincent Ford.

After an assassination attempt in Jamaica in December 1976, which wounded but did not kill him, Marley relocated to London where he recorded his ninth album. Exodus, released in June 1977, elevated Marley to international stardoom and received Gold certifications in the UK, U.S. and Canada. Here’s the infectious Jamming, which also became one of the album’s six singles.

Next up: A fantastic live version of Is This Love from the aforementioned Babylon by Bus, released in November 1978. Marley and his band first recorded the tune for their 10th studio album Kaya from March 1978. Similar to No Woman, No Cry, I think the live version of Is This Love is superior to the initial studio recording. It has always been one of my favorite tracks on Babylon by Bus.

At the end of 1978, Bob Marley made his first visit to Africa, including Kenya and Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafari. He subsequently became a supporter of Pan-African solidarity. This is reflected on his 11th studio album Survival that came out in October 1979. One of the songs, Zimbabwe, celebrates the liberation of the country formerly called Rhodesia.

One of the grooviest Bob Marley tunes is Could You Be Loved, which blends reggae with dance music. It became one of his highest-charting singles in the UK where it peaked at no. 5. While in the U.S. it missed the Hot 100, it reached no. 6 on the Dance Clubs Songs, another Billboard chart. Could You Be Loved was included on Uprising from June 1980, the final album released during Marley’s lifetime.

I’d like to wrap up with two more tunes that came out after Marley’s death. The first is Buffalo Soldier from Confrontation, a studio album that appeared in May 1983. The record was a compilation of unreleased material and singles recorded during Marley’s lifetime. Buffalo Soldier is co-credited to Marley and Jamaican DJ, musician and reggae producer Noel George Williams, who was known as King Sporty. The tune became Marley’s highest-charting UK single peaking at no. 4. It was even more successful in New Zealand where it reached no. 3.

This bring me to the final tune and one of by favorites by Bob Marley: Iron Lion Zion. Originally, Marley wrote and first recorded that song in 1973 or 1974. But it was not released until October 1992, when it first appeared on a four-disc box set called Songs of Freedom. The version I’m featuring here is a remix that was included on Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, an addendum to the 1984 compilation Legend.

Sources: Wikipedia; Bob Marley website; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Best of “Bobfest”

Sometimes one beautiful thing leads to another. In my previous post, I wrote about Tom Petty’s affection for The Byrds and how he covered some of their tunes. One of the clips I included was a performance of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Bob Dylan tune popularized by The Byrds with their beautiful jingle-jangle version in the mid-’60s. The footage came from a concert that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s eponymous debut album. This prompted me to further check out that tribute show and boy, do I love what I found!

The four-hour concert took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 16, 1992. Regardless of what you think of Dylan, the fact that he is revered by so many top-notch artists speaks for itself. It was certainly reflected in the concert’s line-up, which featured John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn, among others.

The house band for the show included Booker T. Jones (organ) and other former members of the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar), along with Anton Fig and Jim Keltner (each on drums). And there were countless other musicians in different capacities I haven’t even mentioned. This was possibly a one-of-a-kind concert!

Let’s kick off the music with Like a Rolling Stone performed by John Mellencamp and special guest Al Kooper on the organ – great way to open the night! Dylan first recorded the classic tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited from August 1965.

Among the show’s true gems was Stevie Wonder’s performance of Blowin’ in the Wind. One of the defining protest songs of the ’60s, it was the opener to Dylan’s sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in May 1963. As Wonder eloquently said, it’s a tune that “will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours.” I’m afraid his words still ring true today.

Next up: Tracy Chapman and her beautiful version of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Recently, I’ve gained new appreciation of the singer-songwriter thanks to badfinger20, who covered Chapman the other day on his great PowerPop blog. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track of Dylan’s third studio album that appeared in January 1964.

Ready for some hardcore blues? Enter Johnny Winter and his scorching version of Highway 61 Revisited, the title track of the above-noted album from August 1965. Ohhh, wham bam thank you man, to borrow creatively from David Bowie. Unfortunately, I could only find the audio version, but I think you can still picture it.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is yet another tune from the Highway 61 Revisited album. If I would have to name my favorite Dylan record, I think this would be it. Of course, the caveat is I haven’t listened to all of his records, not even close! The artist who got to perform the tune during the concert was Neil Young, who did a great job. BTW, he dubbed the concert “Bobfest,” according to Wikipedia.

Here’s a great cover of I Shall Be Released by Chrissie Hynde. The first officially released version of the song was on the July 1968 debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink. Dylan’s first recording occurred during the so-called Basement Tapes sessions with The Band in 1967, which was released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 in 1991. In 1971, Dylan recorded a second version that appeared on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II from November that year.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, so I faithfully followed his advice and didn’t hesitate to call it out. It’s another song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton did a beautiful job making it his own. Don’t think twice, check it out!

George Harrison’s appearance at the show was remarkable. It marked his first U.S. concert performance in 18 years. Sadly, it would also be his last time performing in public, as Rolling Stone noted in a January 2014 story previewing the March 2014 super deluxe reissue of the concert. Harrison covered Absolutely Sweet Marie, a tune from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s seventh studio album from June 1966.

Of course, I couldn’t write about the bloody concert without including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who performed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, another track from Blonde on Blonde. Love it!

For the final clip in this post, it’s about time to get to the man himself and My Back Pages. He first recorded the tune for his fourth studio album Another Side of Bob Dylan, which appeared in August 1964. For his rendition at the show, he got a little help from his friends Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. That’s what friends are for, and they did a great job!

The last word shall belong to guitarist and the show’s musical director G.E. Smith, who is quoted in the above Rolling Stone story: “That gig was one of the highlights of my career… There aren’t a lot of people that can attract a lineup like that, and everyone was on their best behavior. Lou Reed and Neil Young can be prickly, but not in the three days we were prepping that show. I also got to talk to Johnny Cash. What’s cooler than that?”

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Rock & Roll at its Best

It’s safe to assume many folks have watched the above clip, probably more than once – I certainly have. But after having done so yet another time, I simply couldn’t resist reposting it. This just has to be one of the greatest moments in rock & roll live history!

To start, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is one of my favorite George Harrison tunes. I also dig the all-star band that celebrated George and his music back in March 2004 at his posthumous induction as a solo artist into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Tom Petty and fellow Heartbreakers Steve Ferrone (drums) and Scott Thurston (bass), Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, guitarist Marc Mann and George’s son Dhani Harrisonand of course the guy who ended up stealing the show: Prince!

While I had known Prince was a talented multi-instrumentalist, until that moment, I had not fully appreciated what a killer guitarist he was. And I’m not quite sure the other guys who were on stage with him that night had either.

Everything sort is flowing along nicely, with Petty and Lynne doing a beautiful job on vocals and Mann skillfully playing guitar fill-ins and Eric Clapton’s solo – kind of what you’d expect from top-notch musicians. Then, at about 3:29 minutes into the action, Prince who had been in the background steps forward and takes this performance to the next level.

At first, the other guys don’t quite seem to notice. At around 4 minutes, Prince is starting to ramp up. At 4:30 minutes, he’s in full attack mode. At 4:44 minutes, he’s turning around looking at Petty and lets himself slowly fall back into the audience. Petty has a second to briefly smile before he needs to resume singing, while Dhani is in full smile mode. The guy who is catching Prince is pushing him back up on stage. Once back on his feet and in a stable position, Prince continues his scorching solo. Eventually, the song is coming to an end.

While I can’t imagine Prince’s backward dive into the audience hadn’t been carefully planned in advance, to me, this is rock & roll at its best. Undoubtedly, this amazing performance and guitar solo raised the bar forever and won’t be forgotten!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Gerry Lane’s New Album Shows There’s Still Some Life Left in Rock

Down on the Boulevard is Irish guitarist’s sixth solo album

Call me a happy camper. Gerry Lane is the second great artist I just “discovered” and write about during the same weekend. Like Minimum Vital, which I covered in my previous post, Lane popped up in the same “New Music Mix” my streaming provider served up yesterday. And like the French progressive rock band, Lane also doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, even though he has been active since 1970 and played with Noel Redding (yep, that bassist from the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and Gary Moore, among others. What’s up with that?

According to his website, Lane was born in West Cork, Southern Ireland. His first instrument was a button key accordion. He later progressed to guitar, and during his early teens he played in the family pub with whoever the visiting musician was. He played in many bands in the West Cork area, one of the most successful being a band called “SOUTHERN COMFORT”…

While in that band he met Noel Redding (Ex Bass player with the Jimi Hendrix Experience). Gerry and Noel played together in various bands around Southern Ireland. During the late 70’s Gerry played the showband circuit in Ireland and England with bands like, Stage 2, Tony Stevens Band and Discovery…In 1980 Gerry formed a band called ” DRIVESHAFT “. With that band he toured extensively in Ireland and England playing headline gigs…and supporting visiting international acts like: Rory Gallagher (also from Cork Ireland), Phil Lynott’s Grand Slam, ZZ Top, Def Leppard, Saxon and the Michael Schenker Group.

In 1983 Gerry moved to England and while living in London he got to work and record with Gary Moore, Cozy Powell (ex-Rainbow / Whitesnake / Jeff Beck / Black Sabbath), Neil Murray (ex-Bass player with Whitesnake / Brian May Band), John Sinclair (Keyboard player with Ozzy Osbourne / Uriah Heep)…In 1993 Gerry moved to the Canary Islands (Gran Canaria) where he now lives and works.

Gerry Lane

The singer-songwriter’s and producer’s vocal influences include Joe Cocker, Tony Joe White, Jimmy Barnes and Bob Seger. Lane’s website also notes Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher, BB King and Buddy Guy as guitarists who have influenced him. When it comes to songwriting, he cites Tony Joe White, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, John Hiatt and Bob Seger. Okay, you might say, any music artist can name famous peers. At the end of the day what truly matters is the music. And the music on this album is a lot fun to listen to, so let’s finally get to some of it.

Here’s the title song and opener. Like all of the 10 tracks on the album, it was written by Lane. Down on the Boulevard also includes a new version of Meloneras Blues, the title track from what appears to be his solo debut from 2008. Check it out!

The album’s second track Kick off them Shoes has a cool blues and Stax soul vibe. It reminds me a bit of Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On. This is some tasty shit!

Track no. 3 is called Cryin’ in the Rain. When the first three songs of an album are great, usually, it’s a good sign. Just like the previous tune, I dig the soulful vibe.

The Writing’s on the Wall features some nice slide guitar action.

Let’s finish things up with another tasty rocker: Solid as a Rock. With that cool guitar riff and sound, I could actually picture this as an AC/DC song. And guess what? It turns out the tune is a tribute to rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, as the notes to the following clip point out.

Mal was a hard man/He was born into a clan/He was a guitar singer/In a rock & roll band/He was dynamite/He was TNT/He was out of sight/He touched the devil in me

He was solid as a rock/He took it to the top/He was solid as a rock/He never let it stop – that’s right/He was solid as a rock…

Yeah, baby!

Sources: Gerry Lane website; YouTube

James Taylor Releases American Songbook Cover Album

I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.

I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.

So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”

James Taylor in this studio
James Taylor in his barn studio in Western Mass.

“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”

Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.

Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.

Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.

My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King ColeElla Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.

American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.

Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube