Almost Queen, One Hundred Percent Killer

Queen tribute band rocks New Jersey’s Asbury Park

Advertisements

Almost Queen couldn’t have come up with a better a name. These four guys from New York really make you feel like you’re watching Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor. While unfortunately this is no longer possible and, as such, they are almost Queen, this band is doing a true killer job. I caught their show last night at The Stone Pony in Asbury, N.J. They really blew the frigging roof off the place!

Queen has been on my radar screen on and off since the late ’70s/early ’80s. While I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, I’m well familiar with their better known songs and like many of them. In fact, I had contemplated doing a post on the English rock band a couple of times before. Then I spotted a notification on Facebook about Almost Queen’s gig last night and watched a few YouTube clips. Since yours truly has been called the King Of The Tribute Bands, of course, I had to continue performing my duties to continue living up to the title. 🙂

Almost Queen 2
Almost Queen (from left to right): John Cappadona, Randy Gregg, Joseph Russo & Steve Leonard

Before getting to last night’s gig and of course some clips, a few words about the band. There isn’t a lot of public background information out there, so I’m quoting from their website: Almost Queen delivers a live performance showcasing signature four part harmonies and intricate musical interludes. Donning genuine costumes, Almost Queen captures the live energy and precision that is the penultimate Queen experience. Okay, you simply could have said they are a kick-ass tribute that sounds and looks pretty darn close to the real deal!

Almost Queen are Joseph Russo as Freddie Mercury, Steve Leonard as Brian May, Randy Gregg as John Deacon and John Cappadona as Roger Taylor. While I couldn’t find any bios on these guys, it’s pretty clear to me that Almost Queen isn’t their first trip to the rodeo – there’s simply too much serious musician craftsmanship going on here! Take it from a guitarist and former bassist, who may have been only moderately capable but who sure as heck knows skill when he sees or hears it! Okay, let’s get to some killer clips before we all get a sheer heart attack!

Almost Queen ticket

After the great opener Tie Your Mother Down, one of my favorite Queen tunes I unfortunately missed to capture, Leonard rhetorically asked, are you ready to get crazy?When the crowd unambiguously expressed their sentiments, the band appropriately kept their foot on the gas pedal with Stone Cold Crazy. The tune first appeared on Queen’s third studio album Sheer Heart Attack from November 1974 and was credited to all four members of the band. The track was also released separately as a single and became a staple of Queen’s live shows thereafter.

Next up: Killer Queen, another track from Sheer Heart Attack. Written by Freddie Mercury, the tune also became the album’s lead single in October 1974. Almost Queen did a great job with the harmony vocals here. These guys definitely can do both play and sing!

Another One Bites The Dust is from Queen’s eighth studio record The Game, released in June 1980. The funky tune was written by John Deacon and also came out separately as the album’s fourth single. Ever since I’ve heard the hilarious version by “Weird Al” Yankovic, who turned it into Another One Writes The Bus, his take is in my ears.

By the time Almost Queen got to Don’t Stop Me Now, there was absolutely no chance anything could get in their way. The crowd had fully embraced them right from the get-go of the show, and the room was cooking, fueled by the pulsating drums and pumping bass! Written by Freddie Mercury, Queen first recorded Don’t Stop Me Now for their seventh studio album Jazz from November 1978.  It also became the record’s second single released in January the following year.

Next up: Fat Bottomed Girls, another track from Jazz, written by Mercury. The tune also became the B-side to the album’s lead single Bicycle Race. Almost Queen made it another vocal gem.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love is not an Elvis Presley song, as Russo reminded the crowd, but yet another great Freddie Mercury composition from The Game. The cool rockabilly tune also became the album’s lead single in October 1979.

And then the time had come for Almost Queen to pay tribute to David Bowie with  Under Pressure. The collaboration with The Thin White Duke was included on Queen’s 10th studio release Hot Space from May 1982. It also appeared as the album’s lead single in October the previous year and became Queen’s second no. 1 hit in the U.K. after Bohemian Rhapsody, topping the Official Singles Chart for nine week. For Bowie it was his third no. 1 on that chart, following Ashes To Ashes and the 1975 reissue of Space Oddity. The track is credited to all members of Queen and David Bowie.

No Queen tribute show would be complete without the above mentioned Bohemian Rhapsody. In my humble opinion, it is one of the weirdest and the same time most brilliant rock songs I know. The epic track was first recorded by Queen for A Night At The Opera, their fourth studio album from November 1975. Written by Mercury and also released separately as the record’s lead single in October that year, the tune should have laid to rest any doubts anyone might ever have had that he could have been an opera singer as well. There aren’t many rock vocalists with that quality – the only other one that comes to my mind spontaneously is Roy Orbison.

And since all things must pass, including great rock & roll shows, the time had finally come for Almost Queen to wrap things up. And what better songs to choose than We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions, just like Queen did traditionally. Both songs appeared back to back as the openers on Queen’s sixth studio album News Of The World. Perhaps not surprisingly, the guitar rocker We Will Rock You was penned by Brian May, while We Are The Champions is yet another Freddie Mercury composition.

So here we are, nine clips later – can you tell somebody got a little bit excited here? I just wish the sound quality of the footage would be better, since I feel it doesn’t do full justice to the band. The audience’s ability to sing, on the other hand, is captured accurately, I’m afraid! 🙂 Oh well, ultimately live music should be about having a great time, and I highly doubt there was anyone last night walking out of the place and being disappointed.

While I obviously recorded a good deal of the show, obviously, there were many things I left out, including pretty impressive drum and guitar solos by Leonard and Cappadona, respectively. Each of the band’s guys is massively talented.

According to the tour schedule on their website, upcoming Almost Queen shows include Brooklyn, N.Y. (Sep 8), Beverly, Mass. (Sep 21) and Plymouth, N.H. (Sep 22). If you like Queen and these guys come to your neck of the woods, you should seriously consider them. Tickets are quite affordable. Take it from the King Of The Tribute BandsAlmost Queen truly is almost Queen! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia, Almost Queen website, YouTube

 

Van Morrison Teams Up With Joey DeFrancesco On New Jazz Album

After almost 60 years, Van the Man shows no signs of slowing down

Van Morrison has kept pretty busy over the past few years. Since September 2016, he has released four studio albums, the latest of which, You’re Driving Me Crazy, just appeared yesterday. Think about this for a moment, how many septuagenarian music artists do you know who are as productive as Van the Man? Of course, ultimately, it should be about quality, not quantity. After having listened to this new album, I have to say I really dig it!

So, how does Morrison’s 39th studio release compare to his other albums? Frankly, given my significant knowledge gaps about his music, I can’t give a fully informed answer. I certainly like Moondance better, but I’m not sure this comparison makes a lot of sense. Is it a good jazz record? That’s another tough question for me to answer, since I rarely listen to jazz. But while this isn’t Morrison’s first jazz album and jazz has been a key influence for his music over the decades, it’s safe to assume the Belfast Cowboy isn’t on the radar screen of most hard-core jazz fans.

Van Morrison & Joey DeFrancesco

Here’s the deal, as far as I’m concerned. After having listened to music for some 40 years and as a past hobby musician who still occasionally grabs a guitar, I’m confident enough to say I know good music when I hear it. To my ears, Morrison and his partner in crime Joey DeFrancesco delivered a beautiful record that is smooth and grooves nicely throughout. While recording the tracks live in the studio, they apparently also had a lot of fun – you can literally hear laughter during and after some of the songs!

The album’s 15 tunes feature a mix of reworked jazz and blues songs like Every Day I Have The Blues (Peter Chatman), The Things I Used To Do (Eddie Jones) and Miss Otis Regrets (Cole Porter), together with new takes of orignal Morrison tracks, such as All Saints Day (Hymns To The Silence, 1991), The Way Young Lovers Do (Astral Weeks, 1968) and Close Enough For Jazz (Too Long In Exile, 1993). Morrison shares writing credits for Evening Shadows with Bernard Stanley “Acker” Bill, an English clarinettist and vocalist  who passed away in November 2014. He first recorded the tune with Bill for his 2002 studio album Down The Road.

With DeFrancesco, Morrison selected a heavy hitter. Over a now 30-year professional career, the 47-year-old American jazz organist, trumpeter and vocalist has worked with the likes of Miles Davis, David Sanborn, John McLaughlin and Ray Charles. I love DeFrancesco’s playing on the album, especially his work on the Hammond organ. According to Rolling Stone, it was also DeFrancesco who put together the backing musicians for the recording sessions: Dan Wilson (guitar), Michael Ode (drums) and Troy Roberts (saxophone). I’d say the time has come for some music!

The record opens with Miss Otis Regrets, a relaxing jazz standard composed by Cole Porter in 1934. The piece is a testament to Morrison’s apparent appreciation of old jazz.

The Way Young Lovers Do takes Morrison back all the way to 1968 and his second studio album Astral Weeks, which I understand is widely considered to be one of his best records. I think this new version presents a nice slightly smoother take, though one certainly needs to consider the whooping 50 years that separate the two recordings.

Another great cover is The Things I Used To Do. Originally, this 12-bar blues tune was written by Eddie Jones, better known as Guitar Slim, and released in 1953. By the way, the producer was then-23-year-old Ray Charles. I like how Morrison and DeFrancesco give the tune a nice jazz feel that makes you want to snip your fingers. The tune is a great example of DeFrancesco’s ace work on the Hammond. I also dig Wilson’s guitar-playing.

Close Enough For Jazz originally was recorded by Morrison as an instrumental for Too Long In Exile, his 22nd studio record from 1993. This new version is a tick faster and more immportantly adds vocals, a nice take.

Everyday I Have The Blues is a blues standard by John Chatman, also known as Memphis Slim. The American blues pianist, singer and composer first recorded the tune in 1947. In addition to Morrison, many other artists covered the song, including B.B. King, Elmore James and Fleetwood Mac during their blues days with Peter Green.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have I Told You Lately, a Morrison tune he first recorded as a ballad for his 19th studio album Avalon Sunset, which appeared in 1989. Admittedly, until now, I only had known the Rod Stewart version from his 1993 Unplugged…And Seated album. Morrison’s new take speeds up the original and gives it a jazz groove. The updated version also uses a female backup singer whose name I haven’t been able to find. But she surely sounds great, as do the Hammond and the horns.

This post wouldn’t be complete without some commentary from Van The Man himself. During a rare phone interview with The New York Times he said, “My thing is not talking about music. It’s about doing it. Other people talk about it, and they make a living talking about it. I make a living kind of singing it and playing it. If it feels right, and it’s the right kind of vibe, then you should just go with it.” Amen to that!

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, YouTube

Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Celebrates 2018 Inductees

Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Nina Simone Join Rock Hall

I know many of the folks who may see this post have strong opinions about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Discussions about inductees and who hasn’t been inducted but should be in there are sure to continue. The selection process certainly looks less than perfect. One could even question the name of the institution. After all, rock & roll certainly doesn’t come to mind when it comes to the amazing Nina Simone, one of the 2018 inductees. So should The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame be renamed to “The Music Hall of Fame?” But if that would be done, wouldn’t this imply such a broad scope that would make it an even more daunting task to identify nominees and select inductees?

While I acknowledge the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is flawed, I still like the idea of celebrating rock & roll music. And let’s be honest, being in the company of the likes of Chuck Berry, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles, to name a few, is pretty cool. I think it’s safe to assume that many artists dream about joining such an exclusive club, whether they admit it or not.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Plaques

Following are highlights from last night’s induction ceremony in Cleveland, based on Rolling Stone’s reporting. Unfortunately, most of the current clips on YouTube sound distorted. I’m actually wondering whether this is done on purpose, so people don’t widely share the material. Also, keep in mind the HBO broadcast of the festivities is still ahead on May 5. Perhaps, better quality clips will become available thereafter I could use to replace some of the current footage. We shall see.

Interestingly, the night kicked off with Bon Jovi who were inducted by Howard Stern. It’s fair to say the Jersey boys, who by far won the fan vote, were the most anticipated artists of the night. One of the questions was whether former guitarist Richie Sambora would join his former band mates – he did, unlike Mark Knopfler who was a no-show. Since ultimately it’s the fans who have made these bands successful by purchasing their music and going to their shows, it’s unfortunate when artists cannot put aside their reservations at least for one night. Knopfler’s absence meant Dire Straits did not perform, which must have been a real bummer to many of their fans!

Anyway, here is Bon Jovi’s performance of Livin’ On A Prayer from their third studio album Slippery When Wet from 1986, which catapulted them to international super-stardom and more than 130 million albums sold to date.

Next it was the turn for Dire Straits. Three former members showed up, including bassist and co-founder John Illsley, initial keyboarder Alan Clark and the band’s second keyboarder Guy Fletcher. While Knopfler was absent, I still feel somebody should have inducted the band. Here is a clip of their acceptance speech.

One of the artists I was particularly pleased to see inducted is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a true trailblazer of early rock & roll. She was inducted by Brittany Howard, the lead vocalist of Alabama Shakes. After her speech, Howard grabbed a guitar to perform That’s All, a Tharpe tune from 1938 – that’s 80 years ago! Howard was backed by a band that included Roots drummer Questlove and Paul Shaffer, among others.

Next up were the Cars, an American new wave, power pop rock band that had a string of hits between 1978 and 1988. They were inducted by Brandon Flowers, the lead singer and keyboarder of The Killers. “The Cars were the first band I fell in love with,” he noted. “And you never forget your first…They achieved greatness and left a comet trail behind them, writing and recording songs that have transcended into classics.” Here’s You Might Think, one of the band’s hits from their fifth studio album Heartbeat City, which was released in March 1984.

Nina Simone was inducted by Mary J. Blige. “Nina was bold, strong, feisty and fearless, and so vulnerable and transparent all at the same time,” she said. “Her voice was so distinctive and warm and powerful; I never heard anything like it. She knew who she was and she was confident in what she did and why she did it. But it was often the lack of confidence in herself that people could relate to. Nina sang for all her pain, her joy, her confusion, her happiness, her sickness, her fight. She fought through all the stereotypes. She fought for her identity. She fought for her life.”

Simone was honored with a two-part tribute. Part one was performed by the Roots and singer-songwriter Andra Day. For the second part, Lauryn Hill, formerly with the Fugees, took the stage. Here is Hill’s entire set, which consisted of Ne Me Quitte Pas, Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair and Feeling Good.

The last honoree of the night were The Moody Blues. They were inducted by Ann Wilson, formerly with Heart. Referring to the band’s iconic second studio album Days Of Future Past, she said, “In 1967, The Moody Blues made a record that changed the face of popular music and influenced an entire generation of progressive musicians, including Yes, Genesis, ELO and many, many others. For the first time, mellotron was introduced to the rock and roll mainstream and rock married classic orchestra. There was no progressive showboating or self-indulgent, mathematical noodling; just great, classy music that expanded your mind, sang to your heart, took you inward and lifted you higher.” Nicely said! Here’s a clip of the band’s best known song from that album: Nights In White Satin.

The evening also included tributes to Tom Petty and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, performed by The Killers and Wilson and Jerry Cantrell, respectively. Here are The Killers playing  American Girl, throwing in some lyrics of Free Fallin’ at the end – too bad the clip’s sound sucks!

And here are Wilson and Cantrell with their rendition of Black Hole Sun, Soundgarden’s best known song. Written by Cornell, the tune appeared on the Seattle rock band’s fourth studio album Superunknown from March 1994.

Last but not least, Steve Van Zandt came on stage with a surprise announcement. “We all know the history of rock and roll can be changed with just one song, one record,” he noted. “This year, we are introducing a new category to the Rock Hall. We’re calling it The Rock and Roll Singles. It’s a recognition of the singles that shaped rock and roll, a kind of Rock Hall jukebox by artists that aren’t in the Rock Hall, which is not to say these artists won’t ever be in the Rock Hall. They just aren’t at this moment.”

The first six singles in this new category include Rocket 88 (Ike Turner’s King’s of Rhythm), Rumble (Link Wray), The Twist (Chubby Checker), Louie Louie (Kingsmen), A Whiter Shade of Pale (Procul Harum) and Born To Be Wild (Steppenwolf) – cool choices!

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

 

What I’ve Been Listening To: Little Feat/Waiting For Columbus

Band’s 1978 double LP is one of the best live gems

Little Feat is one of the many bands whose names I’ve known for a long time but for some reason never got around to listen to. When I recently asked a dear friend who is also a huge fan of the band which album he’d recommend to start me off, he half-jokingly said all of them. Then he noted some box set. But he quickly realized none of these recommendations would be, well, exactly a little feat, for a guy with a family and a full-time job, so he mentioned Waiting For Columbus. Let’s just say, he has a pretty good idea what makes me tick!

I’ve now listened to this album for a few times and pretty much dig it from the first to the last bar. The caliber of the musicians around co-founder, songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist Lowell George is simply outstanding. Together with the fantastic backing horn section Tower Of Power, this double LP from February 1978 truly makes for a compelling listening experience. In fact, I would go as far as calling it one of the very best live albums I’ve come across to date, and for what it’s worth, I’ve definitely listened to many over last 40 years.

With that being said, it’s hard to decide where to even start. How about the beginning? The album, which captures recordings from seven different shows that took place in London and Washington, D.C. in August 1977, kicks off with a nice short acappella version of Join The Band, a traditional, followed by Fat Man In The Bathtub. Written by George, like the majority of the band’s tunes until his death in June 1979, the song is from their third studio album Dixie Chicken.

All That You Dream is a track from The Last Record Album, the band’s fifth studio release from November 1975. It is one of the few tunes that doesn’t include George in the writing credits. Instead, it was created by Paul Barrere, who joined Little Feat in 1972 as a guitarist, and band co-founder and keyboarder Bill Payne. With a nice funky groove driven by a cool guitar riff and strong harmony vocals, it’s got the key ingredients that make for a great tune.

Oh Atlanta is from Little Feat’s fourth studio album Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, released in August 1974. The song was written by Payne, who also sang lead. I guess this explains the cool honky tonk style piano that draws you in immediately, along with the nice harmony vocals and a groove that makes you move – my kind of music!

Dixie Chicken is the title track from Little Feat’s aforementioned 1973 album. Wikipedia and AllMusic call this record the band’s signature release. While I haven’t listened enough to their music to make such a definitive statement, I know good music when I hear it, and this track definitely makes my list! It was co-written by George and Martin Kibbee (credited as Fred Martin), a collaborator with whom George initially had played in a garage punk band after high school, according to American Songwriter. Like other tunes on Waiting For Columbus, this is an extended version – again, it’s the honky tonk piano I love and the horns, which give the song a nice New Orleans feel.

Rocket In My Pocket is another I tune I’d like to call out, though I find it really hard to choose one track over the other. Also composed by George, the song is from Little Feat’s sixth studio record Time Loves A Hero, which came out in May 1977. If I see this correctly, it’s the band’s last studio album that was released during George’s lifetime.

Spanish Moon is another track from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. To me it’s again the groove that stands out on this George tune. I love the intro with the conga and the bass, and how the track picks up from there. The horn accents give it a seductive soul touch – just awesome!

Willin’ appears on Little Feat’s second studio album Sailin’ Shoes, released in May 1972. According to Wikipedia, it’s a reworked version of a song George had written that made Frank Zappa fire him from The Mothers Of Invention in May 1969. However, there is some dispute about the exact circumstances. George had joined Zappa’s backing band in November 1968 as rhythm guitarist and vocalist.

As I noted above, I could easily go on forever about this record, but as George Harrison once wisely sang, “all things must pass.” The last track I’d like to highlight is another co-write by George and Martin called Rock & Roll Doctor, the opener from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. 

In addition to George, Barrere and Payne, Little Feat’s line-up at the time of Waiting For Columbus included Sam Clayton (congas, vocals), Kenny Gradney (bass) and Richard Hayward (drums, vocals). There were also two prominent guests: Ace guitarist Mick Taylor (yep, that Mick Taylor from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones!) played lead and slide guitar on A Apolitical Blues. Doobie Brothers vocalists Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons provided backing vocals on Red Streamliner. The Tower Of Power horn section included Emilio Castillo (tenor saxophone), Greg Adams (trumpet), Lenny Pickett (alto and tenor saxophone, clarinet on Dixie Chicken), Stephen “Doc” Kupka (baritone saxophone) and Mic Gillette (trombone, trumpet).

In April 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Waiting For Columbus at no. 49 on their list of 50 Greatest Live Albums Of All Time. While I may have rated this recorded higher, it certainly is in mighty company with other artists and records like James Brown (Live At The Apollo, 1963; no. 1), The Allman Brothers Band (At Fillmore East, 1971; no. 2), The Who (Live At Leeds, 1970; no. 4), The Rolling Stones (Get Ya Ya-Ya’s Out, 1970; no. 17), Jimi Hendrix (Jimi Plays Monterey, 1986; no. 18), Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band (Live/1975-85, 1986; no. 20), Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band (Live Bullet, 1976; no. 26) and U2 (Under A Bloody Red Sky, 1983; no. 44), to name some.

Following George’s death and the release of the band’s seventh studio album Down On The Farm in November 1979, Little Feat called it quits. In 1987, the band’s surviving members Barrere, Clayton, Gradney, Hayward and Payne reunited, and added songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Craig Fuller and Fred Tackett (guitar, mandolin, trumpet) to the line-up. Little Feat has since released nine additional studio records, as well as various live and compilation albums. They remain active to this day, with Barrere, Clayton, Payne and Tackett still being part of the mix. Their official website lists multiple shows for this year, mostly featuring different members of the band.

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, American Songwriter, Rolling Stone, Little Feat official website, 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

Tom Dowd, Humble Music Genius Behind The Scenes

Recording engineer and producer shaped sound of some of greatest music recorded during second half of 20th century

This post was inspired by Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music, one of the most fascinating music documentaries I recently watched. Before getting to it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Music Enthusiast who recommended the film to me.

Created by Mark Moormann, the documentary, which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was a 2005 Grammy Award nominee, tells the fascinating story of Tom Dowd, a recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records. Over a 50-plus-year career that started in the 1940s, this man worked with an amazing array of artists, including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The M.G.s, Eric Clapton, Cream, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the list goes on and on. During that period, Dowd also advanced studio techniques that would revolutionize recording.

Tom Dowd and Ray Charles
Tom Dowd with Ray Charles

Dowd was born on October 20, 1925 in New York City. From the beginning of his life, he was exposed to music. His mother was an opera singer, while his dad worked as a concertmaster. While growing up, Dowd learned various instruments, including the piano, tuba, violin and string bass. After high school, he continued his musical education at City College of New York. During that time, Dowd also played in a band at Columbia University and became a conductor. Undoubtedly, all of this contributed to his great ear for music, which would come in handy for his later professional work in music.

Interestingly, Dowd’s path could have been very different. At 18, he was drafted into the military and through his work at the physics laboratory at Columbia University became involved in the Manhattan Project – yep that project, which developed the atomic bomb! Dowd planned to become a nuclear physicist after finishing his assignment. There was only one problem: His secret research for the military had been much more advanced than the university’s curriculum. So he decided against pursuing studies in nuclear physics and instead got a job at a classical recording studio in New York, before starting his longtime career with Atlantic Records.

Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler
Tom Dowd (left) with Jerry Wexler

In addition to helping shape the sound of some of the most amazing music recorded during the second half of the 20th century, Dowd was instrumental to drive innovation in the studio. He convinced Jerry Wexler, a partner in Atlantic Records, to install an Ampex eight-track recorder, putting the company on the cutting edge in recording technology. Dowd also popularized stereophonic sound and pioneered the use of linear channel faders on audio mixers as opposed to rotary controls. He then became a master in operating the linear channel faders, almost as if he was playing a keyboard!

Initially, various of the musicians were skeptical or even hostile when they saw Dowd. During the documentary, Eric Clapton said, “To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t interested in people like that.” Pretty much along the same lines, Gregg Allman noted, “Suddenly, you get to the studio, and there is a new guy there critiquing all this stuff, and you think, ‘where did he come from?'”

But when they realized what kind of artists Dowd had recorded in the past, how much he knew about music (likely, more than they did all combined!), and what he could do at the mixer, they listened. Heck, Dowd even managed to suggest to Ginger Baker, who undoubtedly is one of the best rock drummers but not exactly a warm fellow, the drum groove for Sunshine Of Your Love! The fact that all these musicians put their big egos aside and listened to this gentle recording engineer is truly remarkable.

Tom Dowd and Duane Allman
Tom Dowd (second from left) and Duane Allman working on final master mix-down of Layla

Dowd passed away from emphysema at the age of 77 on October 27, 2007 in Florida, shortly after the above documentary had been finished. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – better late than never, I suppose! One can only speculate what would have happened to Layla by Derek and The Dominos, Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream and so many other great recordings Dowd impacted!

Following are two video clips. First up is the trailer to the documentary, which in addition to Dowd includes commentary from Ray Charles, Clapton, Allman and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Listening to the beginning of the clip when Charles is taking about the importance of sound is priceless in and of itself. I also recommend watching the remainder and hear all the other people talk about Dowd. It becomes obvious how much they revered him!

Here is how Dowd summarizes his amazing experience with artists from the ’50’s to the ’80s and the evolution of recording technology. I just find it fascinating and could listen to the man for hours!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dowd was his modesty. In the documentary, there is a scene where he notes that while he had worked with all these artists, he wasn’t a millionaire – far from it! Obviously, many albums these artists released became big-time sellers. But apparently, money didn’t matter to Dowd. Instead, it was all about the music. I think his following statement sums it up perfectly: “Music has been very kind to me over the years.” Boy, the music industry could need visionsaries like Tom Dowd these days!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music (Documentary, Mark Moorman, 2003), YouTube

My Playlist: Sting

Sting is an artist I’ve admired for a long time, both as a songwriter and a musician. The idea to put together a playlist of some of his songs came to me the other day when I was exchanging emails with a friend who is fond of Sting as well. BTW, he’s also a gifted vocalist and musician who does an outstanding job capturing the voice of Donald Fagen and on top also writes his own music. I’m sure I’ll have to say more about him when the time is right.

Back to Sting whose real name is Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner – I suppose it’s obvious why he adopted a different stage name! Sting was born on October 2, 1951 in Wallsend, a small town in northeastern England with a history of shipbuilding. This would later inspire The Last Ship, a Broadway show for which Sting wrote the music and the lyrics.

While Sting performed in various jazz bands on the side during his college years and while working as a teacher for a couple of years, his full-time professional music career didn’t start until January 1977, when he got together with drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Henry Padovani to form The Police. In August 1977, Padovani was replaced by Andy Summers who initially had joined the band as a second guitarist.

The Police
The Police during a show in The Netherlands in 1983. From left to right: Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers

The Police released their debut album Outlandos d’Amour in November 1978. They had financed the recording with £1,500 borrowed from Copeland’s brother Miles. While initially it performed poorly, the record ended up selling more than a million copies in the U.S. alone. The Police recorded four more albums before they disbanded in 1986. By that time, Sting had already released his first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, which had appeared in June 1985.

As of November 2016, 11 additional solo studio records from Sting have appeared, apart from various live and compilation albums. A new record, which is a collaboration with Jamaican artist Orville Richard Burrell (known as Shaggy), is set to come out in April. Combining the solo albums with his Police recordings, Sting has sold over 200 million records, making him one of the most commercially successful music artists. Time for the playlist!

This compilation only focuses on Sting’s solo work. First up: Fortress Around Your Heart. Written by Sting, the tune is from The Dream of the Blue Turtles and became one of the album’s four hit singles. Here’s what appears to be a clip of the official video.

Fragile is one of most powerful Sting tunes Sting I know, in my opinion. It is from his second solo record …Nothing Like the Sun released in October 1987. According to Wikipedia, the song is a tribute to an American civil engineer, who was killed by anti-Communist para-military group the Contras in Nicaragua while working there on a hydroelectric project. Following is a clip of an emotional version Sting performed live on September 11, 2001 in Tuscany, Italy, to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks.

Another Sting gem is the title track from his third studio record Soul Cages, which appeared in January 1991, following the death of his father in the late ’80s. The lyrics of the concept album focus on Sting’s relationship with his dad and how he felt after his old man had passed. Soul Cages also appeared separately as the album’s third single in April 1991.

Ten Summoner’s Tales is perhaps Sting’s Aja album. The relaxed and more upbeat songs stand in stark contrast to the introspective predecessor. To me the highlight of Sting’s fourth solo record from March 1993 is Fields of Gold, a timeless ballad that is just beautiful. Below is a really cool clip. I seem to hear slight deviations here and there from the version that is on the album. There also appears to be slightly more echo. It doesn’t matter, it’s a terrific take captured a beautifully shot video.

Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot became the lead single from Mercury Falling, Sting’s fifth solo record from March 1996. Like most of his tunes, it was entirely written by Sting. The song was about a sick friend with HIV/AIDS. “The first time he went to the hospital I visited him and I was really at a loss to know what to bring him,” Sting told Unmask Us. “I’d just read a book by a Buddhist monk…The premise of the book is that dying is a process that we all need to be training for in that we’re all dying whether we have AIDS or not. I thought that would be a good book to bring him and he loved the book and got a lot of pleasure from it.”

Sting’s sixth solo album Brand New Day from September 1999 became particularly known for its second single Desert Rose, a collaboration with Algerian folk singer Cheb Mami, and the title track, which earned Sting his third Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Pop Performance. I’m more intrigued by Fill Her Up, a unexpected tune with a country flair, featuring James Taylor on vocals and acoustic guitar.

In September 2003, Sting released Sacred Love, his seventh studio album. At that point, he had largely been gone from my radar screen. On this record Sting demonstrated he is not afraid to experiment and explore new terrain, such as R&B and dance-oriented music, and collaborating with hip-hop artist Mary J. Blige and sitar player Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. While these collaborations demonstrate Sting’s versatility, I prefer This War, which has a nice rock flavor that’s more up my alley.

Starting with 2006’s Songs From The Labyrinth, which features lute music from English Renaissance composer John Dowland, through The Last Ship, the 2013 companion album to his musical with the same name, Sting had lost me completely. I was very encouraged when he released 57th & 9th, his first album in 13 years that is much closer to the Sting I’ve come to like. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised how rock-oriented this record is, which I previously reviewed here. Following is a clip of the opener and lead single I Can’t Stop Thinking About You, a rocker with a catchy melody, which is a bit reminiscent of The Police.

Last but not least, here is a clip of Don’t Make Me Wait, the lead single from Sting’s above mentioned upcoming collaboration album with Shaggy, which is titled 44/876. The Caribbean-influenced record shows yet another side of Sting’s versatility. “The most important thing to me in any kind of music is surprise,” Sting told Rolling Stone during a recent interview. “And everybody is surprised by this collaboration – by what they’re hearing. We’re surprising.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Unmask Us, Rolling Stone, You Tube