What I’ve Been Listening To: George Benson/Walking To New Orleans

The other day, I found myself looking at the Billboard Blues Chart, something I rarely do. That’s when I spotted Walking To New Orleans, the latest album by George Benson. While I had known the jazz guitarist had crossed over to other genres like pop, funk and R&B, I had not associated him with the blues. Intrigued by my “discovery,” I looked up the album in my music streaming service and started listening – boy, what a fun and groovy record, which celebrates the music of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry!

Before getting to the album, I’d like to give a bit of background on Benson, who was born in Pittsburgh on March 22, 1943. He started out playing the ukulele as a seven-year-old before he picked up the guitar a year later. At the age of 10, Benson recorded his first single She Makes Me Mad, which appeared on RCA-Victor under the name of Little Georgie. His debut album The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, recorded together with The Brother Jack McDuff Quartet, was released in 1964 when he was 21.

George Benson

In the mid-60s, Benson worked with Miles Davis and appeared as a guest on Davis’ July 1968 studio album Miles In The Sky. Until the mid-70s, Benson recorded a series of albums mainly in the jazz domain. The release of Breezin’ in May 1976 marked his breakthrough into pop and biggest success topping the Billboard 200. Another big mainstream success was Give Me The Night, which appeared in August 1980 and peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard 200. I believe this Quincy Jones-produced record was my introduction to Benson. He has since released numerous additional studio, live and compilation albums.

Walking To New Orleans, which came out last month, is Benson’s 45th album and his first new recording since Inspiration: A Tribute To Nat King Cole from June 2013. “I’m a great appreciator of the music made by both of those guys,” Benson explained. “Chuck Berry was a great showman and a great musician, and Fats Domino cut nothing but hit after hit after hit.” With that said, let’s get to some music!

The Chuck Berry tune Nadine (It’s You) makes for a great opener. Berry released it as a single in February 1964. I dig the honky tonk piano and the horns, which like on many other tracks on the album give the song a great groove.

Rockin’ Chair is one of the five Fats Domino songs on the record. Co-written by Domino and Alvin E Young, it appeared as a single in 1951 – another great tune that makes you want to move and snip your fingers.

Next up: Chuck Berry classic You Can’t Catch Me. Written by Berry, the tune appeared as a single in 1956. It was also included on Rock! Rock! Rock!, a soundtrack album for a motion picture of the same name.

The last track I like to highlight is the album’s great title song, another Fats Domino tune. Written by Bobby Charles, Domino released it in June 1960 as a single. Featuring Domino’s signature rock & roll piano style, the song also appeared on his album …A Lot Of Dominos! that came out the same year.

The album was recorded in Nashville and produced by Kevin Shirley, a.k.a. “The Caveman.” Shirley has worked with many artists, such as Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, Rush and Led Zeppelin. Backing up Benson is a quartet of excellent Nashville musicians, including Greg Morrow (drums, music director), Rob McNelley (guitar), Kevin McKendree (piano) and Alison Prestwood (bass).

“We did have us a ball making this record,” Benson summed up. It’s exactly that sentiment that is evident throughout the album and makes it such a fun listening experience. I think it may also encourage me to pay closer attention to the Billboard Blues Chart going forward.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, George Benson website, YouTube

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On This Day In Rock & Roll History: April 14

I can’t believe almost three months have passed since my last installment in this long-running recurring feature. For some reason, at times, I need to convince myself to start digging through music history for a specific date yet again, though once I do so, I’m usually intrigued with what comes up. Of course, there are occasions where what I find only mildly excites me. When that happens, I tend to refrain from writing a post.  Anyway, April 14 turned out to be an interesting date.

1945: Richard Hugh Blackmore, better known as Ritchie Blackmore, was born in the southwestern English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. This means the guitarist and songwriter is turning 73 years old today. Blackmore is best known as one of the founding members of Deep Purple, which is still my favorite hard rock band to this day. Yes, there are other great hard rock bands, first and foremost Led Zeppelin, but if I had to choose one, it would still be Deep Purple. Blackmore also founded Rainbow in 1975 and revived the band as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 2015. In 1997, he kissed rock music goodbye and established Blackmore’s Night, a British-American traditional folk-rock band with then-girlfriend Candice Night, who became his wife in 2008 – I suppose he carefully listened to what many parents tell their kids about getting engaged or married: Don’t rush it! 🙂 In 2016, Blackmore was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Deep Purple. Here’s Blackmore in action with a cool high-speed guitar solo: Highway Star, from my favorite 1972 Deep Purple album Machine Head. Happy birthday!

1963: The Beatles saw The Rolling Stones perform for the first time at The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, a suburban town in southwest London. “They were still on the club scene, stomping about, doing R&B tunes,” recalled George Harrison, according to The Beatles Bible. “The music they were playing was more like we’d been doing before we’d got out of our leather suits to try and get onto record labels and television.” Added Paul McCartney: “Mick tells the tale of seeing us there with long suede coats that we’d picked up in Hamburg, coats that no one could get in England. He thought, ‘Right – I want to be in the music business; I want one of those coats.'” And what did Ringo Starr have to say? “I knew then that the Stones were great. They just had presence. And, of course, we could tell – we’d had five weeks in the business; we knew all about it!” Last but not least, here’s some of John Lennon’s recollection: “They [The Stones] were run by a different guy then, Giorgio Gomelsky. When we started hanging around London, the Stones were up and coming in the clubs, and we knew Giorgio through Epstein. We went down and saw them and became good friends.”

Rolling Stones At Crawdaddy Club 1963
The Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy Club, April 14, 1963

1966: The Spencer Davis Group was on top of the U.K. Singles Chart with Somebody Help Me, scoring their second no. 1 single in the U.K. Like their first chart-topper Keep On Running, the tune was written by Jackie Edwards, a Jamaican musician and songwriter. The song was also included on the band’s third studio album Autumn ’66 released in August 1966. If my math is correct, Steve Winwood, who sang lead and played keyboards, was all of 17 years when they recorded the single. He was still known as Stevie Winwood at the time – what an amazing talent!

1967: The Bee Gees released their debut single in the U.S., New York Mining Disaster 1941. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, it became the band’s first international single release and their first song to chart in the U.S. and the U.K., peaking at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 12 on the U.K. Singles Chart, respectively. When the tune was released, there were rumors the Bee Gees actually were The Beatles recording under a pseudonym. “If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype of the machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles,” recalled Barry Gibb, according to the 2012 biography The Bee Gees – Tales of the Brothers Gibb, by Hector Cook, Melinda Bilyeu and Andrew Mon Hughes. “And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was the Beatles under a different name.” While it’s safe to assume opinions about the Bee Gees are divided among readers of the blog, I’ve actually always thought they were pretty talented vocalists and songwriters.

1972: David Bowie released Starman as a single in the U.K., which became his second major hit there since Space Oddity from July 1969, peaking at no. 10 on the singles chart. In the U.S., the single performed more moderately, reaching no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Bowie, the tune was a late addition to his fifth and, in my opinion, best studio album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars released in June 1972. It also happens to be one of my favorite Bowie tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

When Bs Should Have Been As

While I suspect most folks can tell an anecdote where they feel a teacher or professor did them wrong, you probably figured this post isn’t about academic grades, though it is somewhat related to grading. I’m talking about the good old-fashioned single from the last Century. Yep, it’s hard to believe that in the age of online streaming and digital downloads there was once was a time when music artists would release singles on vinyl and people would actually buy them!

The most common format of the vinyl single was the 7-inch 45 rpm, which according to Wikipedia was introduced by RCA Victor in March 1949 as a more durable and higher-fidelity replacement for 78 rpm shellac discs. Historically, singles had an A-side and a B-side, and placing a song on the A-side implied it was better than the tune on the flip side. In December 1965, The Beatles disrupted this tradition when they released the first so-called double-A side: We Can Work It Out and Day Tripper. The 70s saw yet another type called double-B, where you had one song on the A-side and two tunes on the B-side. Also known as maxi singles, the initial format was 7 inches and, starting from the mid-70s, 12 inches.

Do singles even matter you might ask. At the end of the day, it’s all music, so who cares how it’s called. Well, I guess I’m a bit of a music nerd, so I get excited about it. That being said, I never got much into buying 45 rpms myself. In retrospect, that’s a good thing, since the handful I ended up were all pretty awful.  Three I can still remember include I Was Made For Loving You (Kiss), Heart of Glass (Blondie) and How Could This Go Wrong (Exile) – indeed, how could things have gone so wrong? Well, to my defense it was the disco era and, perhaps more significantly, I was like 12 or 13 years old and slightly less mature!:-)

Before I go any further with this post, I have to give credit where credit is due. The initial inspiration for the topic came from a story on Ultimate Classic Rock about B-sides that became big hits. Then I also remembered that fellow blogger Aphoristic Album Reviews has a recurring feature called Great B-sides. Both together made me curious to do some research and there you have it: a playlist of tunes that initially were released as B-sides, which in my opinion would have deserved an A-side placement or perhaps double-A side status. This doesn’t necessarily mean I feel the corresponding A-sides were inferior. With that being said, let’s get to it!

What better artist to kick off a rock playlist than with Mr. Rock & Roll, Chuck Berry. In September 1956, he released Brown Eyed Handsome Man, a single from his debut album After School Session. The B-side was Too Much Monkey Business, which I personally prefer over the A-side. Both tunes were written by Berry. Like many of his songs, Too Much Monkey Business was widely covered by others like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Yardbirds. Naming them all would be, well, too much monkey business!

Another 1950s artist I dig is Buddy Holly, a true rock & roll and guitar pioneer who during his short recording career released such amazing music. Here’s Not Fade Away, the B-side to Oh, Boy!, a single that appeared in October 1957 under the name of Holly’s band The Crickets. Not Fade Away was credited to Charles Hardin, Holly’s real name, and Norman Petty. In February 1964, The Rolling Stones released a great cover of the tune, their first U.S. single and one of their first hits.

In November 1964, Them fronted by 19-year-old Van Morrison released a cover of Baby, Please Don’t Go, a traditional that had first been popularized by delta blues artist Big Joe Williams in 1935. While Them’s take was a great rendition, it was the B-side, Morrison’s Gloria, which became the band’s first hit, peaking at no. 10 on the British singles charts. Following the song’s big success, apparently, Gloria was re-released as a single in 1965, with the garage rocker getting its well-deserved A-side placement. G.L.O.R.I.A., Gloria, G.L.O.R.I.A., Gloria – love this tune!

Another great B-side is I’ll Feel A Lot Better by The Byrds, which they put on the flip side of their second single All I Really Want To Do from June 1965. It was written by founding member Gene Clark, the band’s main writer of original songs between 1964 and early 1966. Like the Bob Dylan tune All I Really Want To Do, I’ll Feel A Lot Better appeared on The Byrds’ debut album Mr. Tambourine Man. I’m a huge fan of Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker jingle-jangle guitar sound. Another reason I’ve always liked The Byrds is because of their great harmony singing. It’s the kind of true music craftsmanship you hardly hear any longer these days.

My next selection won’t come as a shock to frequent readers of the blog: I’m The Walrus by The Beatles. Other than the fact that The Fab Four are my all-time favorite band, there’s another valid reason I included them in this playlist. You can file this one under ‘what were they thinking relegating the tune to the B-side and giving the A-side to Hello Goodbye.’ Hello? According to The Beatles Bible, not only was John Lennon’s push to make Walrus the A-side overturned by Paul McCartney and George Martin, who both felt Hello Goodbye would be more commercially successful, but it created real resentment from Lennon. And frankly who can blame him! After the band’s breakup, he complained “I got sick and tired of being Paul’s backup band.” Yes, Hello Goodbye ended up peaking at no. 1 but also as one of the worst Beatles singles!

Next up: Born On The Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the B-side to Proud Mary, a single released in January 1969. Unlike the previous case, I think this is a great example of two killer tunes that are each A-side material. Written by John Fogerty, both songs appeared on CCR’s second studio album Bayou Country that also came out in January 1969.

In October 1969, Led Zeppelin issued Led Zeppelin II, only nine months after their debut, and one of their best albums, in my opinion. The opening track Whole Lotta Love was released as a single in November that year. The B-side was Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman). It may not be quite on par with Whole Lotta Love, but it sure as heck is an excellent tune with a great riff. The song was co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

The Needle And The Damage Done is one of my favorite songs from one of my all-time favorite artists: Neil Young. It became the B-side to Old Man, which Young released as a single in April 1972 off Harvest, his excellent fourth studio album that had appeared in February that year.

Also in April 1972, David Bowie came out with Starman, the lead single from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, his fifth studio album and my favorite Bowie record. The B-side was Suffragette City, a kick-ass glam rocker. Like all tracks on Ziggy Stardust, it was written by Bowie.

Of course, this playlist wouldn’t be complete without featuring a tune from one of my other all-time favorite bands, The Rolling Stones. I decided to go with When The Whip Comes Down, the B-side to Beast Of Burden, which was released as a single in September 1978. As usually co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both tunes appeared on Some Girls, the Stones’ 14th British and 16th U.S. studio album from June that year. That’s according to Wikipedia – I didn’t count them myself!

Sources: Wikipedia, Ultimate Classic Rock, Radio X, Smooth Radio, Forgotten Hits, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

My Busy 2018 Music Journey Part 2: New Music & 2019 Preview

Part 1 of this 2-part series looked back on the concerts I was fortunate to catch this year. Another significant aspect of my 2018 journey was listening to music, both familiar and new. While most of the music that’s coming out these days isn’t my cup of tea, I still ended up reviewing 24 new releases this year. About half (13) are studio albums, while the remainder is a mix of reissues, vault type releases and live records. Even if you only consider the new studio releases, 13 albums over the course of one year, or an average of approximately one per month, isn’t so bad for somebody who almost entirely lives in the past when it comes to music.

From the above studio albums, I’d like to call out the following: John Mellencamp, Other People’s Stuff, Dec 7 (review); Greta Van Fleet, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, Oct 19 (review); Paul McCartney, Egypt Station, Sep 7 (review); Buddy Guy, The Blues Is Alive And Well, Jun 15 (review); Roger Daltrey, As Long As I Have You, June 1 (review); and Sting & Shaggy, 44/876, Apr 20 (review). Following are some clips.

Teardrops Will Fall, a ’60s tune co-written by Gerry Granaham and Marion Smith, was first recorded by John Mellencamp for his June 2003 album Trouble No More. But it actually sounds he could have taken the tune from his 1987 gem The Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp’s first record where he moved away from straight rock toward a more roots-oriented sound.

While Greta Van Fleet will probably need to find a more original style to ensure their longevity, selfishly, I can’t deny getting a kick out of their Led Zeppelin-style rock. The Cold Wind from their new album is a great example. I don’t know of any other band that sounds like the mighty early Zep. One thing is for sure: Robert Plant can no longer deliver vocals with this degree of intensity.

Egypt Station is Paul McCartney’s 17th solo study album. Here’s I Don’t Know, a classic McCartney piano-driven pop song. Yes, Macca’s voice has noticeably changed since New from October 2013, but I actually think it goes pretty well with his latest songs. Based on YouTube clips I’ve watched, I’m less sure about Beatles tunes. Many are in high keys and as such tough to sing, so Macca may have to make some adjustments.

Moving on to Buddy Guy, who at age 82 shows no signs of slowing down. One of the highlights of his latest record is Cognac, where he trades guitar licks with Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. If you’re a guitarist with basic blues skills, you just feel like grabbing your instrument and joining in!

As Long As I Have You is Roger Daltrey’s first solo album in close to 26 years. Here’s the excellent title track, a cover of a tune that initially was recorded by soul singer Garnet Mimms in 1964. The Who also played it in their early days.

Last but not least in the new studio album category is what at first sight may look like a somewhat odd pairing: Sting & Jamaican pop reggae fusion artist Shaggy. But they actually blend quite well, and here’s some pretty groovy evidence: Just One Lifetime.

This year also saw various great reissues and songs from the vault type albums. The two releases I’d like to highlight here are the reissue of The Beatles’ White Album (review) and Songs For Judy, an excellent Neil Young compilation of live solo performances from his November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse (review).

To me the true revelation of the Beatles’ reissue are the so-called Esher Demos, early and unplugged versions of most of the original album tracks, along with a few additional songs that didn’t make the White Album. They were all recorded at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher located to the southwest of London. Here’s the Esher demo of Revolution.

The song I’d like to call out from Neil Young’s recent vault release is The Needle And The Damage Done. It remains one of my favorite tunes from Harvest, Young’s fourth studio album that came out in February 1972.

I also would like to acknowledge two Jimi Hendrix releases: The reissue of Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Both Sides Of The Sky, the third in a trilogy of posthumous albums after Valleys Of Neptune  (2010) and People, Hell and Angels (2013).

The last category of 2018 albums I’d like to touch on are live releases. I already noted Neil Young’s record. Three others that deserve to be called out are Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen On Broadway (review), Sheryl Crow’s Live At The Capitol Theatre (review) and Soulfire Live (review) by Little Steven and The Disciples of SoulSpringsteen On Broadway is one of the best new albums I’ve heard this year. While Bruce Springsteen as a great music performer wasn’t any news to me, I had not fully appreciated his compelling verbal story-telling capabilities. There’s a bit of that on the Live/1975-1985 box set where Springsteen talks about how he was drafted for Vietnam and that his dad was happy they didn’t take him. Springsteen on Broadway takes his story-telling to another level. In fact, Springsteen’s monologues that precede his songs are almost more compelling than the music performances. Here’s part 1 of the introduction to My Hometown.

Next up: Sheryl CrowIf It Makes You Happy is one of my favorite Crow tunes from her eponymous second studio album released in September 1996. On the new live album, she starts off with another unidentified song I don’t recognize, before launching into Happy.

On to Little Steven. Soulfire Live captures his 2017 tour with The Disciples of Soul in support of his excellent Soulfire album, one of my favorite new records from that year. Among the live album’s highlights is a terrific cover of the Etta James tune Blues Is My Business. In addition to Steven demonstrating that he can be more than just a side-kick,  The Disciples of Soul prove what a terrific backing band they are.

So what’s in store for my music journey next year? On the concert front the only thing I can say for sure is I’m thrilled I got a ticket for The Rolling Stones on June 13 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It will only be my second time to see the Stones. Three other artists who are currently on my radar screen are John Mellencamp, John Mayall  and Paul McCartney.

Mellencamp has a series of gigs in New Jersey and New York at the end of February. I’d definitely enjoy seeing him again! Mayall has started booking dates in Europe for February and March. I’ve never been to one of his shows and hope he’ll add a U.S. leg to the tour that includes at least one logistically feasible concert. As for McCartney, his current tour schedule shows U.S. gigs between late May and mid-June. Unfortunately, none of them are within reasonable reach, so hopefully there will be additional dates closer to my location.

To frequent visitors of the blog it won’t come as a shock that I have every intention to continue seeing tribute bands. In fact, I already have a ticket for Neil Young tribute Decade for January 11 in Asbury Park, N.J., where they are going to recreate Young’s MTV Unplugged concert from 1993 – should be pretty cool! On February 23, I’m hoping to see Good Stuff, a great new tribute to Steely Dan, Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder. I’m planning to do more about these guys in the near future. Assuming the above British Invasion and Rock The Farm festivals will happen again in 2019, I certainly want to return to both events. Undoubtedly, there will also be plenty of other tribute opportunities.

2019 Outlook

Before finally wrapping up this post, I also would like to take the opportunity to reflect on the current status of the blog. I’m generally pretty happy where things stand at this time. Sticking with it wasn’t necessarily a given when I started out in late June 2016. While I’ve always emphasized I’m doing this because of my passion about the subject of music, not to become “famous,” I cannot deny that getting recognition in the form of comments, likes and followers is encouraging. I’m happy traffic has multiplied from 2017 and to date includes visitors from more than 70 countries.

I’d like to thank all readers, especially those who keep returning and leave comments. Apart from learning new stuff about music, feedback can also help me gain new perspectives. Whether you’re a fist-time visitor or one of the regulars, I’d like to wish you a great and peaceful Holiday season. And if you’re a fellow music blogger, to borrow creatively from Neil Young, keep on rockin’ in the blogosphere!

Christian

Rocking Bitmoji

Sources: Wikipedia, Christian’s Music Musings, YouTube

My Busy 2018 Music Journey Part 1: The Concerts

This two-part series isn’t a traditional year-end music review. If that’s what you’re looking for, you could check out this New York Times article about the 28 best albums of 2018 or this Rolling Stone piece titled 50 Best Songs of 2018. Frankly, I don’t even know the names of the majority of artists and songs mentioned in these two articles. And without meaning to sound arrogant or judgmental, I simply don’t care! The reality is the vast majority of music that’s popular nowadays and in the charts doesn’t speak to me.

I’ve also finally accepted that classic rock won’t return to the mainstream – like the blues, it was never meant to be there in the first place, as a recent article reminded me. But, as the same article also correctly stated, just because rock no longer is in the limelight doesn’t mean it’s dead. Consider this: My most viewed blog post this year was a review of a concert by excellent Led Zeppelin tribute band Get The Led Out. My most popular Facebook post was a video clip I took of Guns ‘N Roses tribute Guns 4 Roses performing Paradise City, which got 125 shares and some 24,000 views. Trust me, I’m not particularly popular on Facebook, but rock music apparently is!

GTLO Collage Asbury Park 11 24 18

I think the above examples are anecdotal evidence of rock’s ongoing appeal outside the charts. More importantly, rock isn’t going away in my music world. To start with, I never get bored listening repeatedly to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Neil Young and The Allman Brothers Band, to name a few of my favorite artists. I also feel there’s a massive amount of 60s and 70s music I’ve yet to explore. Altogether, this adds up to more stuff I will ever be able to handle, even if I would retire from work immediately and live until age 100! And then there’s icing on the cake when occasionally I come across young bands I dig like Detroit classic rockers Greta Van Fleet, all-female New York blues rock band Jane Lee Hooker or Memphis blues, soul and R&B outfit Southern Avenue.

Music, apart from being something I deeply enjoy, has always been a welcome distraction from challenges life can throw at you. This year, I certainly had my share, so it’s probably not a coincidence that between the blog, listening to music and going to concerts, 2018 felt like my most active year in music to date. It’s also worth remembering that shit happens to everybody. I’m alive and have a job, and my family has a roof over our heads, so ultimately I should be grateful. With that being said, let’s get to part 1 of this review, which focuses on concerts I’ve visited this year, and there have been many.

John Fogerty & Billy Gibbons

Between original artists and tribute acts, I must have set a new record for myself! I’ve seen more than a dozen original artists, who in reverse order include Toto (Nov); Steely Dan twice (Oct & Jul); Southern Avenue (Aug); Ann Wilson, Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers (Aug); The Doobie Brothers (Jul, together with Steely Dan); Gov’t Mule (Jul, Dark Side of the Mule Pink Floyd show); Neil Young (Jul); Lynyrd Skynyrd (Jun); ZZ Top & John Fogerty (May); Jackson Browne (May); Buddy Guy (Apr 20) and Steve Winwood (Mar 9). I also had a ticket for Aretha Franklin for March 25, one of her very last shows that got canceled due to her illness. The concert would have coincided with her 76h birthday.

While all of the above gigs delivered, the three highlights were Steely Dan at The Beacon Theatre, New York City, Oct (review); Neil Young at Wang Theatre, Boston, Jul (review); and John Fogerty at PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmel, N.J., May (review). Following is one clip from each show.

Here’s the mighty Dan with Deacon Blues. This song is a great example of a tune I can listen to over and over again, and it just doesn’t get boring. Truly masterful music never does!

Next up: Neil Young and After The Gold Rush – the combination of Neil with his shaky, almost vulnerable voice and the pipe organ’s church-like sound still give me goosebumps when I think about it!

And here’s John Fogerty with Billy Gibbons performing Holy Grail, a tune they wrote together prior to their Blues & Bayous Tour. Yes, essentially, it’s a remake of La Grange, and it certainly wasn’t the best song of the show. But it’s the only clip I took myself that night, plus watching these two rock legends together on one stage was a treat in and of itself.

Things in 2018 were also pretty intense on the tribute concert front but, hey, I suppose my good blogger pal Music Enthusiast doesn’t call me the “King of Tribute Bands” for nothing! By now I can probably claim that I’ve seen tribute acts of bands ranging from A to Z. The highlight in this context once again was Rock The Farm in Seaside Heights, N.J. at the end of September (review). Among others, the annual festival featured great tributes to Neil Young (Decade), Guns ‘N Roses (Guns 4 Roses), Fleetwood Mac (TUSK), Tom Petty (Free Fallin’) and AC/DC (LIVE/WIRE). Another great tribute event was the British Invasion Festival at the Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. in June (review). Like the previous year, the line-up included tributes to The Beatles (Britain’s Finest), The Rolling Stones (The Glimmer Twins) and The Who (Who’s Next).

Outside these two festivals, I’ve seen numerous other tribute bands throughout the year. In this context, I’d like to call out the above noted Led Zeppelin tribute Get The Led Out  (review), as well as Echoes, “The American Pink Floyd” (review), and Jimi Hendrix tribute Kiss The Sky, which I saw together with Cream tribute Heavy Cream (review). Following are a few clips. First up: Get The Led Out playing the big enchilada Stairway To Heaven.

Next is a flavor of Echoes performing Time and The Great Gig In The Sky from The Dark Side Of The Moon album. I still frequently listen to that record to this day, oftentimes at night and with earbuds. I really should get a decent set of headphones, especially for Pink Floyd music.

Last but not least is Kiss The Sky setting the stage on fire with Voodoo Child (Slight Return). If you’re into Hendrix, it’s really a fun show to watch.

Part 2 is going to focus on new 2018 albums that excited me. As stated at the outset, don’t expect seeing any chart toppers here! Part 2 will also take a brief look at music activities that are on my radar for 2019.

Sources: New York Times, Rolling Stone, Christian’s Music Musings, YouTube

My Playlist: Yusuf/Cat Stevens

Here’s an artist I pretty much had forgotten about, even though I dig many of his songs – until yesterday, when I spotted Tea For The Tillerman as a listening suggestion in my streaming music service. It immediately took me back to my teenage days in Germany when I was taking guitar lessons and learning Cat Stevens tunes like Lady D’Arbanville and Father And Son. And before I knew it, I was strumming my acoustic to see whether I could still remember the chords of the latter – I did, and while I rarely grab my guitar these days and my playing has become rusty, it still felt great!

Once I had Father And Son on my mind, other tunes popped up: Morning Has Broken, Peace Train, Miles From Nowhere, Moonshadow – so much great music written by this British artist who I feel has rightly been called one of the great singer-writers during his heyday in the ’70s, along with James Taylor, Carole King and others. At the same time, I can’t think of another popular music artist who has had such an unusual and at times tumultuous journey as Yusuf/Cat Stevens, as he is known today.

Born Steven Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in London, U.K. to Stavros Georgiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Ingrid Wickman from Sweden, Stevens started his recording career as an 18-year-old in 1966. He pretty much had immediate success in the U.K. His first single I Love My Dog charted at no. 28. The song was also included on Stevens’ debut album Matthew And Son, which appeared in March 1967. Not only did the title track climb to no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart, but the record became a top 10 album, peaking at no. 7.

In 1969, Stevens almost died from tuberculosis. Not only did this traumatic experience impact his future music, but it also started a spiritual journey that eventually would lead him to convert to the Muslim faith in December 1977 and give up his music career. But before that he had reached international stardom with a series of albums in the early ’70s, including the above mentioned Tea For The Tillerman.

Cat Stevens In Concert 1970s
Cat Stevens in concert during the 1970s

In 1989, Stevens, who by then was known as Yusuf Islam, returned to the spotlight, but it wasn’t the kind of attention he had looked for. Comments he had made were widely seen as endorsing a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie related to his novel The Satanic Verses. The reaction was harsh, especially in the U.S. Some radio stations banned his music, and a radio host in LA even called for a mass burning of Stevens’ records. The band 10,000 Maniacs, which had covered Peace Train on their 1987 album In My Tribe, decided to remove the track from later releases.

While Stevens repeatedly maintained his remarks had been misunderstood, he also said his comments were foolish. I don’t have enough insights to come to a definitive conclusion here and it’s also not my place to judge. But I think if this controversy had occurred today in the age of social media, Yusuf would have been finished as a music artist.

Yusuf-Cat Stevens in Concert
Cat Stevens performing in New Zealand in 2017

Starting from the mid-1990s, Yusuf Islam resumed his recording activity with a series of albums focused on Islamic themes. In November 2006, he released An Other Cup, his first all-new pop album in 27 years. Three additional such records have since come out. His most recent album from September 2017 is called The Laughing Apple. Let’s get to some music.

I’d like to start with the above mentioned Matthew & Son, the title track of Stevens’ debut album from March 1967. Like all other songs on the record except for one, the catchy tune was written by Stevens. BTW, it features John Paul Jones on bass. The then-session musician joined the New Yardbirds the following year, the band that subsequently changed their name to Led Zeppelin.

Stevens’ sophomore release New Masters didn’t get much attention, but it includes a tune I’ve always liked: The First Cut Is The Deepest. Rod Stewart turned the song into a no. 1 single in the U.K. in 1977. Another well-known version is the cover by Sheryl Crow, who included it on her 2003 best of compilation, scoring a no. 14 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

In April 1970, Stevens released his third studio album Mona Bone Jakon. His near-death experience with TB had changed him. The tone of his lyrics had become darker. Another contrast to his first two albums was a more stripped back sound, which I love. Initially, the record was a modest success but received more attention after the release of the follow-on Tea For The Tillerman. Here’s the opener Lady D’Arbanville, one of several songs Stevens wrote about former girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville, a model and later an actress. I’ve always dug the cool guitar part on this tune.

Another great track from Mona Bone Jakon is Katmandu featuring then 20-year-old Peter Gabriel on flute. It’s just a beautiful tune!

Next up: Wild World from Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ fourth studio album released in November 1970, and his commercial breakthrough. It’s another tune about his ex-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville.

Also appearing on the album is Father And Son, one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs.

In October 1971, Stevens released his fifth studio album Teaser And The Firecat, another gem in his catalog. Among the tracks I find particularly beautiful is Morning Has Broken. According to Wikipedia, this tune is a Christian hymn that was first published in 1931, with lyrics by English author Eleanor Farjeon. The piano arrangement on Stevens’ version was composed and performed by classically trained keyboarder Rick Wakeman, who is best known for his five tenures with Yes between 1971 and 2004.

Another standout on the record is Moonshadow. According to Songfacts, Yusuf today considers it his favorite of his old songs.

Up to this point, this playlist only focused on Stevens’ early years, since that’s the period I’m familiar with. But I also like to give a nod to his more recent work. I still have to explore this music in greater detail. Here’s a tune called Everytime I Dream, which appears on Roadsinger from May 2009, Yusuf’s second album since his return to pop music.

The last song I’d like to feature is See What Love Did To Me. It’s a tune from The Laughing Apple, released in September 2017 as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. This album, which mostly includes reinterpretations of old tunes and some new music, represents various milestones. It was the first since 1978 that used the Cat Stevens name. The release came 50 years after his debut record. It also reunited him with Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced his most successful records in the ’70s, and Alun Davies, his guitarist during that period.

In addition to numerous music accolades, Stevens has received various awards for his charitable humanitarian work. In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, he conducted a 50th anniversary tour that kicked off in Toronto on September 12 and included 11 dates in the U.S. It appears that after a long and tumultuous journey, Yusuf/Cat Stevens is finally in a place where he is comfortable with his spiritual beliefs and his music.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yusuf/Cat Stevens website, Songfacts, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Lenny Kravitz/Raise Vibration

Eleventh studio album illustrates that after 30 years Kravitz maintains his gift to combine retro with modern sounds and write catchy tunes

Somehow I completely missed Lenny Kravitz’s new album Raise Vibration when it was released on September 7. I guess I should perhaps subscribe to a music publication to better stay on top of new music, except of course I’m not into most music that’s coming out these days. Anyway, I “discovered” Raise Vibration earlier today after I had seen a related clip on Facebook. Most of the reviews I read were quick to point out Kravitz’s 11th studio release doesn’t break any new ground. I mostly agree and that’s just fine with me.

I feel many critics have given Kravitz a hard time since he emerged in September 1989 with Let Love Rule. Some have said his music too much reflects his ’60s influences like Jimi Hendrix or early Led Zeppelin. Last time I checked both were among the most outstanding artists on the planet. Some folks have maintained Kravitz doesn’t sound black enough, while others have found he sounded too white. All of this is complete and utter nonsense, in my opinion!

Lenny Kravitz

When I look at Kravitz, I see an incredibly talented artist who writes, sings and produces his own music. Oh, and apart from being a capable guitarist, he also plays most of the other instruments on his records. Most importantly, Kravitz has the gift to mix retro elements with modern sounds and write catchy tunes. All of these qualities are present on Raise Vibration, his first new album in four years since Strut from September 2014.

But evidently, Kravitz found himself in a very different place three years ago after he had finished his last world tour, he told Rolling Stone in April this year. “I really wasn’t sure where I was going musically,” Kravitz explained. “After doing this for 30 years, I wasn’t feeling it. I’d never felt that confused about what to do. And it was kind of a scary place. You don’t know when it’s going to come.” While there are techniques that can stimulate creativity, ultimately, you can’t force it.

Lenny Kravitz In Concert

Kravitz bravely rejected the advice from others to collaborate with producers and songwriters who know how to score hits. “I’ve never really worked that way, following trends or doing what people think you should do,” he further noted to Rolling Stone. “I’ve always made music that came naturally out of me.” And fortunately that’s exactly what happened when one night Kravitz woke up at 4:00 am in his house in the Bahamas with a song in his head, which would become Low, one of the standouts on the album. It proofed to be the catalyst he needed to spur his artistic creativity. “I learned you have to trust yourself and the artist in yourself. Always trust what you have.” Yes! And with that let’s get to some music.

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Low. Like all other tunes on Raise Vibration except for two, it was written by Kravitz. The song also became the second single released ahead of the album on May 29. If the “oohs” in the track sound like Michael Jackson, that’s because it features posthumous, presumably sampled “guest vocals” from the King of Pop. This is one great funky tune!

Next up: The album’s title track. I just love the guitar sound and the cool breaks on that track. The native American chants and drums toward the end ad an unusual element. So much for not breaking any new ground!

Johnny Cash, a moving tribute to the country legend, is based on an encounter Kravitz had with the Man in Black and his wife June Carter Cash in 1995, when they were all staying at producer Rick Rubin’s apartment in Los Angeles. At the time his mother was receiving treatment for breast cancer. After getting a call from the hospital that this mom had passed away, Johnny and June consoled Kravitz. “…they decided at that moment (to) treat me like they would treat someone in their family,” Kravitz said during a BBC interview, as reported by Music-News.com. “It was a beautiful moment of humanity and love.”

Another gem on the album is Here To Love, a nice piano-driven ballad.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Enough, which also became the album’s lead single released on May 11. It’s got a cool Marvin Gaye vibe that lyrically is reminiscent of  What’s Going On with a bass line that sounds like it could have been inspired by Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Also check out the horns that start at around 6 minutes into the song: nice touch of ’70s Temptations – super cool!

Like he usually does, Kravitz produced the album and plays most of the instruments. Other than string and horn players, the only other musicians are longtime collaborator and guitarist Craig Ross, who also co-wrote two of the tracks with Kravitz, as well as keyboardist and orchestrator David Baron. Kravitz is supporting the album with a world tour. The 2018 section started in April ahead of the record’s release and mostly focused on Europe. It also included 10 dates in the U.S., which wrapped up in Las Vegas in late October. According to the schedule, the tour will resume in March 2019 with a series of gigs in South America before traveling back to Europe. Currently, the last date is June 11, 2019 in London, U.K.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Music-News.com, Lenny Kravitz website, YouTube