‘Stars Align’ Is Bold Tour Title, But Ann Wilson, Paul Rodgers And Jeff Beck Look Like They Can Live Up To It

One could be forgiven to a bit cynical about the concept: Take three artists who had their prime years in the ’70s, throw ’em together and boldly call it the Stars Align Tour. Admittedly, I couldn’t entirely escape this notion when I saw that Ann Wilson, Paul Rodgers and Jeff Beck announced their tour, which kicked off on July 18 in West Valley City, Utah. Then I read some reviews and watched some clips on YouTube – well, let’s just say I wasn’t turned off by what I saw and just got a ticket for August 12 at my go-to concert venue PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., and for very reasonable money I should add.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised in the first place. After all, the success or failure of the three-in-one concept crucially depends on the featured artists. At 74, Beck seems to continue to defy age, not only with his looks but much more importantly with his guitar-playing. Okay, you might say, compared to 82-year-old Buddy Guy, Beck’s still an adolescent. But let’s not kid ourselves, rock & roll is a brutal business. On top, I can’t imagine Beck lived a particularly healthy life style. Speaking of Guy and Beck, I saw these two guitar dynamos in a double-header in July 2016 at the above venue, and it was a terrific show, so my expectations for the upcoming gig are high – now you better bring it, Beck! 🙂

Paul Rodgers, Jeff Beck & Ann Wilson

As for Rodgers, I had actually hoped he and Bad Company would be part of the June 22 Lynyrd Skynyrd farewell show I caught at – yes, you guessed it correctly – PNC. Given how many freaking shows I’ve seen there, perhaps I should apply for an honorary membership! 🙂 Leading up to the Skynyrd gig, I had read somewhere that Bad Company would be among the special guests that night. So I was full of anticipation and quite disappointed when it turned out they weren’t part of the lineup. I suppose that was another good reason to get a ticket for the Stars Align Tour. Looking at setlists from recent gigs, Rodgers is playing a nice mix of Bad Company and Free stuff. And his rock pipes still seem to be working nicely!

And then there’s Wilson. While I don’t want to pretend I’m a Heart expert, based on their music I know, I’m well aware of Wilson’s vocal capabilities. Barracuda is a nice showcase of what she can do. As an aide, Ann’s older sister Nancy Wilson is a kick-ass guitarist, but she’s not part of the tour. Interestingly, as reported by Ultimate Classic Rock and other media outlets, Ann’s set only includes one Heart tune, the aforementioned Barracuda. The remainder are all covers, and there’s some great stuff there, such as The Who’s The Real Me, The Black Crows’ She Talks To Angels and the Eagles’ Life In The Fast Lane.

Okay, time for a few clips. Here’s Wilson’s rendition of Life In The Fast Lane. She took some creative liberties with the tune, which was co-written by Joe Walsh, Glenn Frey and Don Henley and appeared on the Eagles’ Hotel California album from December 1976. It’s quite different from the original, but I think it’s a cool take.

As noted above, Rodgers’ set nicely draws from Bad Company and Free. Here’s the latter band’s signature tune All Right Now. Penned by Rodgers with Free bassist Andy Fraser, the song is from their third studio album Fire And Water, released in June 1970. It also appeared separately as a single. It’s one of these timeless straight rockers with a cool guitar riff that still sound great to this day!

Last but not least, here’s a cool black & white clip of Beck performing one of the few originals from his set, Brush With The Blues, which he co-wrote with Tony Hymas. The tune appeared on his seventh studio album Who Else! from March 1999.

Wilson, Rodgers and Beck are playing Boston tonight. Next they are taking the Stars Align Tour to Camden, N.J. (Aug 4), Cincinnati (Aug 8) and Indianapolis (Aug 10). The tour will wrap up in Tampa, Fla. on Aug 26.

Sources: Wikipedia, “Stars Align Tour” announcement; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

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Jackson Browne Still Strong And Far From Running On Empty

Vonda Shepard delivers soulful opening

Jackson Browne must have a secret, and I wanna know what it is. While the man supposedly has been running on empty for the past 40 years, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. After I had heard the song for the first time on the radio in Germany in the late ’70s, Browne quickly became one of my favorite artists. Not surprisingly, I was really psyched when I finally saw him for the first time Sunday night at Sands Bethlehem Event Center in the former steel town of Bethlehem, Pa.

After a 45-year-plus recording career, Browne’s voice still sounded just as great as it did back in the days of Running On Empty. Heck, he even largely looked the same with the same hairstyle – okay, now with grey hair and glasses, but overall, time has been relatively kind to Browne. And what an ace backing band! But let’s start from the beginning.

Jackson Browne Concert Poster

Have you ever been to a rock & roll show that started on time? I don’t recall any, but this one actually did! At 7:30 PM on the dot, Browne walked out on stage to personally introduce his opening act: American singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard. Frankly, I had never heard of her before. Browne called her a great songwriter who for sometime had been part of his band. Oh, and he also allowed her to use his current backing band – what a class act!

I have to say I was impressed with Shepard, who reminded a bit of Sheryl Crow. Her voice has a nice soulful vibe. She also is a musician, playing the piano, bass and guitar.  Shepard started out as a backing singer, eventually got a record contract, and released her eponymous debut album in 1989. After her third record had appeared in 1996, she was hired for the TV sitcom Ally McBeal, for which she recorded two companion soundtrack albums. She scored a hit with Searchin’ My Soul, a catchy pop rock tune she co-wrote with Paul Howard Gordon. To date Shepard has released 14 albums. Here is a clip of Searchin’ My Soul, which was the closer of her 25-minute set.

Then the time had finally come for Jackson Browne. From the opening bars of Before The Deluge to the final notes of the encore, I was amazed by Browne’s voice and his musicianship. With a 45-year-plus recording career, he certainly had an enormous catalog he could pull from and he did. I wasn’t familiar with all of the tunes he performed, but with the help of Setlist.fm, I figured out the entire set except for one song.

The first tune I’d like to call out is The Long Way Around, a track from Browne’s last studio album Standing In The Breach, which appeared in October 2014. One thing I liked about the song was the great solo by Browne’s lead guitarist Val McCallum, whose guitar work shined throughout the evening. I just dig the clear and transparent sound he got out of his Fender Telecaster. Here’s a nice clip.

Another highlight was Lives In The Balance, the title song from Browne’s eighth studio album released in February 1986. The stripped back version prominently featured his terrific backing vocalists Alethea Mills and Chavonne Stewart, who added a dose of gospel and soul. Check it out.

Amid all his songs, Browne also threw in a cover of I’m A Patriot, a tune written by Little Steven for his second solo album Voice Of America from May 1984. Again, backing singers Mills and Stewart featured prominently in the laid back tune and did a beautiful job.

In addition to being a great songwriter and vocalist, Browne is a pretty decent guitarist. One standout in this context was Your Bright Baby Blues from his fourth studio album The Pretender released in November 1976. It featured some nice slide guitar work by Browne. You can watch it here.

Speaking of The Pretender, here is the great title track of the album. It was one of the tunes Browne played on the piano.

Running On Empty was the last track of the regular set. I still love this song after all these years. Greg Leisz did a beautiful job on pedal steel guitar. Like the amazing David Lindley, this guy is an impressive multi-instrumentalist.

Browne waited to the encore to play one of his other major hits: Take It Easy, which he co-wrote with Glenn Frey. It became the first single for the Eagles in May 1972. Browne included the tune on his sophomore album For Everyman, which came out in October 1973. On Sunday night, he blended it into Our Lady Of The Well, the second tune on that record. Leisz provided more beautiful pedal steel guitar. It’s all nicely captured in the following clip.

In addition to McCallum, Leisz, Mills and Stewart, Browne’s excellent backing band included Bob Glaub (bass), Mauricio Lewak (drums) and Jeff Young (keyboards). Here is the entire set list.

  • Regular
    • Before The Deluge
    • Some Bridges
    • You Love the Thunder
    • The Long Way Around
    • The Dreamer
    • Lives In The Balance
    • Doctor My Eyes
    • These Days
    • Shaky Town
    • Never Stop
    • I’m A Patriot
    • Somebody’s Baby
    • Looking East
    • Your Bright Baby Blues
    • World in Motion (together with Vonda Shepard)
    • Unknown song
    • I’m Alive
    • Sky Blue and Black
    • Shape of the Heart
    • The Pretender
    • Running on Empty
  • Encore:
    • Take It Easy
    • Our Lady Of The Well

Source: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube

Great Music Isn’t Quite Dead Yet

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

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

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

Ry Cooder_The Prodigal Son

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

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

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

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

John Mellencamp_Plain Spoken From The Chicago Theatre

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

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

Glenn Frey_Above The Clouds Box Set

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

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

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

Well, If You Ever Plan To Motor West…

Just take my way, it’s the highway, it’s the best…

Get your kicks on Route 66. These lines of course are the beginning of the opening verse from the well-known R&B standard composed by American songwriter Bobby Troup in 1946. Frequent readers of the blog may notice it’s not the first time I write about this tune. So what’s going on here?

To me Route 66 simply is one of the best car songs I know, along with Highway Star, Born To Be Wild (wait, isn’t that from a famous picture about bikers?) and Radar Love, to name a few others. And, yes, I also enjoy driving and believe a road trip is the best way to explore the U.S., even though it sounds so 20th century! Heck, most of the music I like is from that period as well, so I guess I’m living in the wrong century!

Now that my slight obsession with Route 66 and car travel is out of the way, I thought it would be fun to put together a playlist of different versions of the song. The tune has been covered by numerous artists over the decades. In fact, if I would look long enough, it might even be possible to find 66 versions. While perhaps that may be clever, it would be a bit of overkill, even for a Route 66 fan like me. Therefore, I’d like to keep this post to six versions.

Let’s kick things off from the beginning with the first recording of the tune by the King Cole Trio. BTW, the song’s full title is (Get Your Kicks) On Route 66. This first recorded version was released in 1946, some 72 years ago! I love that jazz groove and how relaxed the musicians are playing in this clip. It shows that great music stands the test of time.

Next up is the excellent cover by Chuck Berry. He included it on his fifth studio LP from March 1961 New Juke Box Hits. Unlike many of his other tunes he had released before then, it didn’t become a hit. Neither did the record, which came out while Berry was in legal trouble that led to 1.5 years of incarceration starting in 1962 – not good for PR!

Perhaps one of the best known covers is the version by The Rolling Stones, which appears on both their 1964 UK and US debut records The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hit Makers), respectively. Instead, I’m highlighting the 1965 cover by Them from that band’s debut The Angry Young Them. I like this take even better than the Stones, and I say this as a Stones fan. The musicians are giving a killer performance here, including great piano and guitar solos, while Van Morrison’s voice is a bit reminiscent of Mick Jagger. They don’t call him Van the Man for nothing!

Another cool hard-charging cover of Route 66 is by British pub rockers Dr. Feelgood. They included the tune on their 1975 debut Down By The Jetty. I’d go see these guys in a bar!

And how about a largely a cappella version by The Manhattan Transfer? If I see it correctly, the jazz vocal group first recorded Route 66 for their eighth studio album Bop Doo-Wopp, released in 1984. The clip below apparently was captured during a 2008 live performance. There is just something special about a vocal band, particularly if they can sing like these guys!

The last Route 66 cover I’m including here is another nice jazzy version by an unexpected artist: Glenn Frey. I also like the touch of country created by the pedal steel guitar. This version appears on Frey’s final studio album After Hours from May 2012, a collection of tunes from the Great American Songbook. It proves what a versatile artist Frey was. Here’s the official video – makes me want to snip my fingers right along with the groove.

While I understand there is very little left of the Mother Road, one of these years, I’d like to take that California trip from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way – according to Wikipedia, the original Route 66 covered a total of 2,448 miles. Maybe something for my 66th birthday? Okay, I guess I’m starting to overthink it now!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Celebrating Music Giants Lost in 2016

Following are my favorite memories of five exceptional music personalities we lost in 2016.

Other than briefly acknowledging some of the big music personalities who passed away in this year, I had not planned to further cover this rather sad subject. Yesterday’s news about the untimely death of George Michael at age 53 made me change my mind. But instead of writing a traditional obituary type of post, I’d like to celebrate each personality’s life by recalling my favorite memories of them.

Glenn Frey

The Eagles are among my all-time favorite 70s rock band. Not only was Glenn Frey one of the founding members, but he also wrote, co-wrote and sang lead on many of their tunes. One such gem is Already Gone, the opener to the Eagles’ 1974 album On the Border. Written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, this rocker features Frey on lead vocals and sharing lead guitar responsibilities with Don Felder. I had the great fortune to see the Eagles as part of their History tour in Atlantic City in July 2015, six months prior to Frey’s death. Here is a nice clip of Already Gone, which apparently was captured during an Eagles gig in New Zealand in late 1995. It definitely brings back memories of that unforgettable show in Atlantic City.

Prince

While I immediately liked Purple Rain when I listened to it for the first time, other Prince songs were more of an acquired taste. But one thing that impressed me from the very beginning about Prince is that he was a multi-instrumentalist. In fact, I read he played almost all instruments on his first five studio albums, including an incredible 27 instruments on his debut! Undoubtedly, his signature instrument was the guitar, and nothing illustrates his mastery better than the killer solo he played on While My Guitar Gently Weeps during his 2004 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Here is a clip of this unbelievable performance, together with a pretty cool band that includes Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Dhani Harrison, among others.

David Bowie

The first David Bowie song I ever heard on the radio was Space Oddity, and it continues to be one of my favorite songs. The tune is the opener of his 1969 album David Bowie, which was his second studio album. I always thought one of the song’s cool features is how Bowie is harmonizing with himself. Another aspect that immediately attracted me is the acoustic guitar part – I guess in part because I was learning to play the guitar myself at the time. Here is a clip of the song’s official video from 1972.

Maurice White

The founder of Earth, Wind & Fire was instrumental for the band’s success, especially between 1970 and his official retirement in 1994 due to Parkinson’s disease. He was the band’s main song writer and producer, and sang co-lead with Philip Bailey. In addition to their amazing voices, the thing I’ve always loved about Earth, Wind & Fire is that their music makes you want to dance. The band has recorded so many great songs, but if I would have to name one in particular, it would be September. Co-written by White, Al McKay and Allee Willis and produced by White, the tune was initially released as a single in Sep 1978. It was also included on the band’s The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which appeared in Nov that year. Here is an audio clip.

George Martin

While he was not a performing artist, what would The Beatles have been without their great producer, Sir George Henry Martin?  There is a reason why he was called the “Fifth Beatle,” including by Paul McCartney. Martin had extensive involvement in all of The Beatles 12 original albums. His musical expertise proved particularly valuable for orchestral arrangements on the band’s later albums. In addition to The Beatles, Martin produced recordings for many other artists, such as America, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Elton John and Little River Band. In my opinion, one of his greatest accomplishments with The Beatles was the stings arrangement for Eleanor Rigby. Here is a clip of this gem from the 1969 album Yellow Submarine.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube