The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Los Lobos/The Road to Gila Bend

Today, my music provider served up a “Chill Mix” that included a tune by Los Lobos titled The Town. It’s from their 12th studio album The Town and the City, which was released in September 2006. Earlier this evening, I sampled some other songs from this record and came across the fantastic The Road to Gila Bend.

I just love that rugged guitar sound. Rolling Stone hit the nail on the head when they called it “a hurricane of Neil Young-like guitar.” That’s probably why I dig it so much. The catchy tune was co-written by David Hildago and Louis Pérez, two of the founding members of Los Lobos who were formed in East Los Angeles in 1973.

According to Wikipedia, The Town and the City explores themes of longing, disillusionment, and loneliness in the Mexican-American immigration experience, and was well received when it came out. Rolling Stone called it their best album since Colossal Head from March 1996. I really need to further explore Los Lobos who remain active to this day.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young/Deep Forbidden Lake

My streaming music provider served up this beautiful tune by Neil Young. Even though I dig the Decade compilation, on which Deep Forbidden Lake first appeared in October 1977, I had to look up the song. I guess it’s fair to call it a deep cut.

Originally, Young had recorded the track for Homegrown, an album he had intended to release in 1975. But in good ole’ Neil fashion he dropped it at the last minute and instead put out Tonight’s the Night in June that year, another previously completed but unreleased album.

Homegrown finally appeared in June this year sans Deep Forbidden Lake. It’s a nice mellow tune that’s perfect for a Sunday morning.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Neil Young & Crazy Horse/Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World

A few minutes ago, I coincidentally saw that Neil Young turned 75 today. Young is one of my favorite artists, and perhaps somewhat selfishly, the first thing that came to mind was ‘Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World, Neil, so I can hopefully catch you again sometime!’

The above clip was captured during Young’s 1991 tour with Crazy Horse to support the Ragged Glory album. When I saw the footage, I simply couldn’t resist posting it, even though I covered the tune before, which is one of my favorite Neil Young rockers. Evidently, the audience loved it as well. I mean, how can you not!

Young first recorded Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World for his 17th studio album Freedom released in October 1989. In fact, the track bookends the album with an acoustic opener and an electric closer. The tune was inspired by political events at the time and a conversation between Young and his guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro while they were touring in the northwestern U.S.

Here’s an explanatory excerpt from Songfacts: “There was supposed to have been a cultural exchange between Russia and United States,” Sampedro recalled to Mojo in a 2018 interview. “Russia was getting Neil Young and Crazy Horse and we were getting the Russian ballet! All of a sudden, whoever was promoting the deal, a guy in Russia, took the money and split. We were all bummed, and I looked at him and said, ‘Man I guess we’re just gonna have to keep on rockin in the free world. He said, ‘Well, Poncho, that’s a good line. I’m gonna use that, if you don’t mind.'”

“So we checked into the hotel in Portland,” the guitarist continued. “And we needed a song. We needed a rocker. We’d written some songs and they were good but we didn’t have a real rocker. I said, ‘Look man, tonight, get in your room, think about all this stuff that’s going down – the Ayatollah, all the stuff in Afghanistan, all these wars breaking out, all the problems in America… “Keep On rockin in the free world,” you got that: put something together man, let’s have a song!’ And the next morning, we got on the bus to leave and he says, ‘OK, I did it!'”

Indeed, and here’s to many more years!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Frankie Miller/The Rock

When Max from PowerPop blog recently posted about I Can’t Change It by Frankie Miller, I was immediately intrigued by the Scottish rock singer-songwriter’s soulful vocals. I also instantaneously recognized the name from an appearance on the German TV concert program Rockpalast I had watched in August 1982, though I still can’t remember any of the songs Miller performed during that show. Anyway, this is what prompted me to start listening to his music including his third studio album The Rock from September 1975.

Before getting to this gem, a few words about Miller are in order. He was born as Francis John Miller in Glasgow on November 2, 1949. Miller’s first exposure to music was his mother Cathy’s record collection. She particularly liked Ray Charles who interestingly ended up covering the above I Can’t Change It on his 1980 album Brother Ray Is at It Again, a song Miller had written as a 12-year-old and recorded for his debut album Once in a Blue Moon released in January 1973.

Going back to Miller’s childhood days, another music music influence were his older sisters Letty and Anne, who introduced him to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Miller started writing his first songs at the age of nine after his parents had given him a guitar. While still being at school, he started singing in a series of bands. Eventually, he joined Glasgow outfit The Stoics. While Chrysalis signed them in 1970, the band broke up before making any recordings.

In 1971, Miller formed a band called Jude, together with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, ex Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker and James Dewar, a Glasgow bassist and vocalist. While the band got attention from the British music press, they dissolved in April 1972, also without recording any music. Miller ended up signing a contract with Chrysalis later that year and released his above debut album in January 1973.

Frankie Miller at Rockpalast, Germany, 1982

Until 1985, Miller recorded eight additional solo albums. After his second-to-last solo release Standing on the Edge from 1982, he mostly focused on songwriting, including film music. Miller’s professional career came to a tragic end in August 1994 when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while writing music for a new band he and Joe Walsh had formed with English keyboarder and drummer Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace, respectively.

According to a bio on Miller’s website, the brain hemorrhage should have killed him but he has shown remarkable courage to claw his way slowly back to health, after spending 15 months in hospital. With massive support from his partner Annette, Frankie is learning to walk and talk again and has even written a new song with lyricist Will Jennings called “Sun Goes Up Sun Goes Down”. But sadly, Miller has not been able to resume performing.

The Rock back cover

While Miller’s records apparently received positive reviews, they were not commercially successful. His singles did not fare much better. Only two of them reached the top 40 in the UK: Be Good to Yourself from May 1977 (no. 27) and Darlin’ from October 1978 (no. 6). Miller’s songs have won writing awards and been performed by an impressive array of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh and Eagles.

Time to get to The Rock, Miller’s only album officially credited to the The Frankie Miller Band. All tracks were written by Miller. Here’s the excellent opener A Fool in Love. Like other tunes on the album, it reminds me of Joe Cocker. The song was actually covered by Etta James on her 1990 album Stickin’ to My Guns.

The title track was inspired by the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, which could be seen from the studio where the album was recorded. According to Wikipedia, Miller said that music saved him from prison. He dedicated the song to the plight of prisoners, apparently a reference to his second cousin Jimmy Boyle, a Scottish former gangster and convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist after his release from prison in October 1981. The Rock has got a cool Faces, early Rod Stewart vibe.

Another gem is Ain’t Got No Money. It’s probably not a coincidence that it became the album’s most covered tune, including by artists like Cher, Chris Farlowe and Bob Seger. Frankly, this would be a great song for The Rolling Stones.

Let’s slow things down with All My Love to You, a dynamite soulful tune. Why this didn’t become a hit beats me. Check it out this beauty!

Frankly, there’s no weak track on this album and I could have selected any other. Let’s do one one more: I’m Old Enough.

The Rock was produced by Elliot Mazer, one of the co-producers of Neil Young’s Harvest album. Musicians included Henry McCullough (lead guitar, backing vocals), Mick Weaver (keyboards), Chrissy Stewart (bass), Stu Perry (drums, percussion) and Miller’s former Jude mate James Dewar. The album also featured two ingredients for shaping its soul sound: The Memphis Horns and The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Frankie Miller website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

I can’t believe it’s October. What happened to summer? Perhaps on the upside, if time continues to race at its current pace, it also means this year will be over soon and we’re into 2021, which will hopefully bring better times. While it remains uncertain when live concerts can safely resume and some artists have delayed releasing new material, it’s great to see decent new music continues to come out.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, my favorite music decades are the ’60s and the ’70s. As such, I’ve generally given up on what’s in the mainstream charts these days. Yet, in March this year, rather than continuing to complain about generic and soulless music populating the charts, I decided to pay more attention to new music that’s not in the charts, even if it’s not by artists I usually listen to, and to start the weekly recurring feature Best of What’s New. While finding new music I dig forces me to do some detective work, it’s been pretty rewarding, so I have every intention to continue this quest.

This brings me to the latest slate of songs. It’s a diverse set, featuring great music by an African American singer-songwriter reminiscent of a ’60s folk protest song, rich soul by a dynamite husband and wife duo, a delicious Louisiana music gumbo by a New Orleans-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, and folk rock by a prolific Canadian artist. Like is oftentimes the case in this series, I had not heard of any of these artists before. Let’s get to it!

Tré Burt/Under the Devil’s Knee (featuring Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Sunny War)

Tré Burt is a Sacramento-based singer-songwriter. According to his website, Burt was drawn to music from an early age. He was raised with his grandfather’s passion for soul music, like the Temptations, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. A school project on Woody Guthrie opened his eyes to the power of folk songwriting. And he discovered one of his songwriting heroes, Neil Young, through his older brother, Joey. In 2018…[he] self-released his debut album, Caught It From the Rye. The album, which showcases Burt’s literary songwriting and lo-fi, rootsy aesthetic, landed him a handful tour dates and some positive press, but Burt had no idea just how far it would get him: to a spot on the roster at John Prine’s Oh Boy Records. Burt’s first work appearing on Oh Boy is the single Under the Devil’s Knee. Released on September 22, it’s a powerful tune about the senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement. To me it has a ’60s protest song vibe. It almost feels like looking at a modern day Richie Havens. Check it out!

The War and Treaty/Little Boy Blue

The War and Treaty is a husband and wife duo of Michael Trotter, Jr. and Tanya Blount. Apple Music describes their style as impassioned soul music that draws on traditional folk, country, R&B, and spirituals, often combining them all. Initially known as Trotter & Blount, they released their debut album Love Affair under that name in 2016. This was followed by the EP Down to the River in July 2017, their first music appearing as The War and Treaty. Healing Tide, the first full-fledged studio album under the current moniker, came out in August 2018. The record, which featured a guest appearance of Emmylou Harris, was well received and reached no. 11 on the Billboard Top Heatseekers Albums and no. 26 on the Independent Albums charts. Blount first became prominent in 1993, when she performed a duet with Lauryn Hill in the comedy picture Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. The following year, she released her solo debut album Natural Thing. Little Boy Blue is a terrific soul song from Hearts Town, the second full-length album by The War and Treaty that appeared on September 25.

Ric Robertson/Louisiana Love Thing

Ric Robertson is a New Orleans-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who according to his website synthesizes the full canon of American music—New Orleans jazz, classic American pop songsmiths, country, modern funk, swampy blues, and R&B to name a few—and births it into something out of this worldRobertson conjures this musical pedigree into a cohesive potion, a finely-tuned sonic concoction with just enough rock n’ roll to kill, just enough blues to keep you alive, and just enough country to make you hold on to love. It’s stirred by Robertson’s distinct voice: sweet, enticing, and contoured with the finely subtle grit of Mississippi River silt and the warmth of vintage vinyl. Robertson’s debut album The Fool, The Friend was released in June 2018. A review in The Big Takeover characterized it as “a fresh and authentic blend of swampy blues, rock and country” and called Robertson “a force to be reckoned with.” While I haven’t listened to that album yet, I agree based on Robertson’s new tune Louisiana Love Thing. It’s from his new EP Strange World that came out on September 25. That’s one delicious gumbo!

Daniel Romano/Joys Too Often Hollow

Wikipedia describes Daniel Romano (born Daniel Travis Romano in 1985) as a Canadian musician, poet and visual artist based out of his hometown of Welland, Ontario. He is primarily known as a solo artist, though he is also a member of [Canadian indie rock band] Attack in Black and has collaborated with [fellow Canadian music artists] Julie Doiron and Frederick Squire. He has also produced and performed with City and Colour, the recording project of Dallas Green [another Canadian music artist]…and is a partner in his own independent record label, You’ve Changed Records. Romano is a prolific artist. His solo debut Workin’ for the Music Man appeared in 2010. He has since released 11 additional solo records, nine collaboration albums and two EPs. An incredible 10 of these releases all appeared this year, including How Ill Thy World Is Ordered, his fourth 2020 album with his backing band Outfit. Here’s Joys Too Often Hollow, a nice folk rocker from that album released on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Tré Burt website; Apple Music; Ric Robertson website; The Big Takeover; YouTube

A Look Back on Rock the Farm Festival

The annual 11-hour marathon on the Jersey shore combines first rate tribute music with a great cause

Today would have been the 7th annual Rock the Farm festival, a great music tribute event conducted each year in the New Jersey shore town of Seaside Heights. But in light of the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic, the organizers made the responsible decision to cancel, hoping they can bring back the 11-hour music marathon in 2021.

I think the idea behind Rock the Farm is ingenious: Imagine an iconic music festival that could never happen in reality and bring it to life with compelling tribute acts and raise money for a great cause in the process! It’s almost like a mini Live Aid, except of course The Beatles or The Doors could have never have shared a bill with the Eagles, Guns N’ Roses or Tom Petty.

Fleetwood Mac tribute TUSK at Rock the Farm 2019

The event is organized by Jersey non-profit community organization CFC Loud N Clear Foundation, which offers post-rehab support programs to individuals and families struggling to overcome addiction to opioids, alcohol and other substances. Rock the Farm serves as their main annual fundraiser.

I realize that unless you are from Jersey and/or have been to the festival, this is a bit of an inside baseball post. But as more frequent visitors of the blog may recall, I dig seeing tribute bands, especially when they are of the high caliber Rock the Farm has attracted over the years. This year would have been my fourth time in a row to attend. Instead, I’m taking a look back at highlights from the past two years.

Let’s kick things off with a Guns N’ Roses tribute band from Dallas called Guns 4 Roses. While I haven’t found any information on when they were formed, their website lists gigs going back to 2009. Here’s their rendition of Sweet Child O’ Mine captured at Rock the Farm 2018.

TUSK are an outstanding tribute to Fleetwood Mac, mirroring the Rumours  lineup. This band from New Jersey, which tours nationally, features Kathy Phillips (as Stevie Nicks, vocals), Kim Williams (as Christine McVie, keyboards & vocals), Scott McDonald (as Lindsey Buckingham, guitar & vocals), Tom Nelson (as Mick Fleetwood, drums) and Randy Artiglere (as John McVie, bass). Here’s Dreams and You Make Loving Fun, from Rock the Farm 2018.

Another highlight at Rock the Farm 2018 were Free Fallin’, a Tom Petty tribute from Minneapolis, founded in 2007. Their members are Tom Brademeyer  (as Tom Petty, guitar & lead vocals), Karl Swartz (as Mike Campbell, guitar & vocals), Craig Volke  (as Scott Thurston, guitar, keyboards, harmonica, percussion & vocals), Dale Peterson (as Benmont Tench, keyboards, percussion & vocals), Russ Lund  (as Ron Blair, bass) and Mark Larsen (as Stan Lynch, drums). Here they are with Refugee, one of my favorite Petty tunes.

The headliner at Rock the Farm 2018 were Live/Wire, a kickass AC/DC tribute from New York. Founded in 2000, the band includes Mike Hughes (as Angus Young, lead guitar), Bill Voccia (as Malcolm Young, rhythm guitar), Chris Antos (as Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, lead vocals), Bill ‘Daytona’ Bowden (as Cliff Williams, bass) and Billy Rauff (as Phil Rudd, drums). Based on their current schedule, the band’s touring radius appears to be the eastern half of the U.S. Here’s It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll). Despite some apparent technical issues with the bagpipe, it’s a pretty cool rendition.

One Fine Tapestry are a tribute to Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. At the core of this act are Gerard Barros and Diane Barros, a New Jersey-based versatile husband and wife duo performing a variety of different shows. At Rock the Farm 2019, they were backed by a full band. Here’s their rendition of King’s Sweet Seasons.

Decade is an act revolving around great Neil Young tribute artist John Hathaway, who is also from New Jersey and performs with different line-ups of talented backing musicians. Frequent members include guitarist Gordon Bunker Strout, pedal steel player Joseph Napolitano, bassists Ken Ramos and John Dickson and keyboarder Steve Cunniff. Sometimes, Hathaway’s band also features a female backing vocalist as was the case at Rock the Farm 2019 with Pam McCoy. Here’s Cinnamon Girl.

Always fun to watch are Rolling Stones tribute The Glimmer Twins from Philly. Named after the songwriting partnership of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, this band is led by Keith Call (vocals, harp) and Bernie Bollendorf (guitars, vocals), who bring to life the sound and looks of Jagger and Richards in the ’70s. While the band’s remaining musicians don’t resemble the other members of The Rolling Stones, they sound fantastic: Michael Rubino (guitars), Bobby Corea (drums), Rob Ekstedt (Bass), Rocco Notte  (keyboards), Valorie Steel (vocals) and Bobby Michaels (saxophone, flute, organ). Check ’em out with Can You Hear Me Knocking.

The final band I’d like to highlight in this look back were the headliner last year: Simply Queen. This Canadian to Queen, which has been around for 15 years, features Rick Rock (as Freddie Mercury), Bob Wegner (as Brian May), Phil Charrette (as Roger Taylor) and Mitch Taylor (as John Deacon). While Simply Queen mostly perform in Canada, they venture out to the U.S. fairly frequently. Here’s a nice rocker called It’s Late.

Sources: YouTube

On Occasions When I’m Up For Heavy Action

A collection of favorite hard rock tunes

My recent “desert island” collection of 10 studio albums included Deep Purple’s Machine Head, which after more than 40 years of listening remains the ultimate hard rock album to me. In that post, I also noted that these days heavy rock no longer is my primary music choice. But occasionally, I still enjoy it, which triggered the idea to put together this playlist. I guess just like with many other things, when it comes to music, it’s all about moderation, except of course for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Neil Young, live concerts, music equipment… 🙂

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I find doing rankings nearly impossible. But since I suppose there needs to be some system to the madness, the following list is in chronological order from oldest to most recent. And, yes, I suppose in some cases you could question whether a pick is really hard, heavy or metal rock, or is it just rock? The boundaries can be pretty fluid. Plus, to some extent, it’s also a bit subjective. At the end of the day, it’s all about music I dig when the occasion is right. With all these caveats out of the way, let’s get to it.

SteppenwolfBorn to be Wild

This classic from Steppenwolf’s eponymous debut album from January 1968 sometimes has been called the first heavy metal song – in part because of the second line of the second verse, “heavy metal thunder.”Born to be Wild was written by Canadian rock musician and songwriter Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire. The tune also appeared separately as a single in June 1968 and became Steppenwolf’s biggest hit next to Magic Carpet Ride. It will forever be associated with the 1969 biker cult picture Easy Rider. Every time I hear that opening line Get your motor runnin’, I feel like climbing on my chopper and heading down Route 18 to the Jersey shore. Then reality sets in. I don’t own a bike, not to mention the minor detail I don’t really know how to ride one. But when I get the urge to look for adventure, there’s always my sexy family crossover SUV! 🙂

Led ZeppelinWhole Lotta Love

While Led Zeppelin IV is my favorite Zep album, Whole Lotta Love possibly is my favorite tune among their crunchy rockers. Credited to all four members, the track first appeared on Led Zeppelin’s sophomore album that came out in October 1969, ingeniously titled Led Zeppelin II. The following month, Whole Lotta Love was also released as a single and became their best chart-performing song, reaching no. 1 in Australia and Germany, and peaking at no. 4 in the U.S. Notably, it didn’t chart in their home country. From today’s perspective, the fact that Whole Lotta Love became such a big hit looks unreal. You need cooling/Baby I’m not fooling/I’m gonna send ya/Back to schooling//A-way down inside/A-honey you need it/I’m gonna give you my love/I’m gonna give you my love//Want to whole lotta love/Want to whole lotta love/Want to whole lotta love/Want to whole lotta love…

Deep PurpleSpeed King

Obviously, it was only a matter of time until I would feature a Deep Purple tune in this post. But while Machine Head was their Mount Rushmore, there’s more to the British hard rockers than this 1972 gem. One great example is the opener to the band’s fourth studio album Deep Purple in Rock released in June 1970: Speed King. Credited to the entire band, the song’s lyrics are made up of titles of classic rock & roll tunes by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, which I always thought was a cool idea. Good golly, said little Miss Molly/When she was rockin’ in the house of blue light/Tutti Frutti was oh so rooty/Rockin’ to the east and west/Lucille was oh so real/When she didn’t do her daddies will/Come on baby, drive me crazy, do it, do it.. This is one kick-ass rocker!

Black SabbathParanoid

While I can’t claim to be a Black Sabbath fan, there’s just no way you can leave out these English rockers from any heavy rock collection. It would be like doing a post about the British Invasion and excluding The Beatles. And, to be clear, I’m not just featuring Sabbath because I felt I had to. I’ve always loved Paranoid, the title track of their second studio album that came out in September 1970. Credited to the entire band, Paranoid first appeared as a single in August of the same year. It became their biggest hit, topping the charts in Germany, and reaching no. 2, 3 and 4 in Switzerland, Austria and the UK, respectively. Apparently, audiences were less receptive in America, where the tune stalled at no. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a cool official clip, even though it’s all playback. Check out Tony Iommi’s cool Gibson SG. One day when I grow up I’m gonna get an ax like this – it even plays rhythm and solo at the same time! 🙂

Uriah HeepBird of Prey

Yep, Uriah Heep with their crazy high vocals can border a bit on the weird, but these guys were rockin’, especially in their early days. I seem to remember when I bought the album Salisbury as a young teenager, my six-year older sister who accompanied me to the record store was a bit embarrassed about my choice. Come on, sis’, while with Carole King’s Tapestry, CSNY’s Déjà Vu and Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, to name a few, you undoubtedly introduced me to some of the best recorded music ever, your taste also varied – let’s just leave it at that! 🙂 Credited to the band members Ken Hensley, Mick Box, Paul Newton and Keith Baker, Bird of Prey is the furious opener of Heep’s sophomore album from February 1971. That tune rumbles just like the tank on the album cover – “geil,” as was fashionable to say in Germany back in the day!

RainbowLong Live Rock ‘n’ Roll

I don’t care how you feel about Rainbow, and my thoughts about them are mixed these days, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll just is an epic rocker. Co-written by former Deep Purple guitarist and Rainbow founder Ritchie Blackmore and the band’s powerhouse lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll was the title track of Rainbow’s third studio album released in April 1978. It also became the record’s lead single in March of the same year. To me, this is Rainbow’s best song. Apparently, audiences felt differently, at least the time, and far preferred some of their later songs, on which Blackmore adopted a more commercial sound along the lines of Foreigner.

Gary MooreVictims of the Future

Before Gary Moore fully embraced electric blues during his solo career, the Irish guitarist released heavy rock album Victims of the Future in December 1983. The big hit off that record was the power ballad Empty Rooms, which was played to death on the radio in Germany. I don’t even recall hearing the title track, which was co-written by Moore, Neil Carter (keyboards), Neil Murray (bass) and Ian Paice (drums) – and, yep, that’s the Ian Paice from Deep Purple. The song wasn’t released as a single; clocking in at more than six minutes, it wouldn’t have been radio-friendly to begin with. Admittedly, this is a pretty aggressive tune I can only tolerate occasionally, but when I’m in the mood for some heavy action, I still enjoy it. According to Wikipedia, Moore later dismissed the record as “just one of my feeble attempts at heavy rock”. It’s certainly quite different from his electric blues music he released starting in the early ’90s all the way until his premature death at age 58 in February 2011.

Guns N’ RosesSweet Child o’ Mine

My sentiments about Guns N’ Roses in general are similar to the previous pick. Sometimes, their music is simply too aggressive, so again, I need to be in the right mood. When I am, I actually enjoy a good number of their tunes. On these occasions, Sweet Child o’ Mine is one of my favorites. It’s a track off their debut album Appetite for Destruction from July 1987. Credited to the entire band, the tune also became the album’s third single in August of the same year. It was one of the songs that fueled the record’s massive international chart success, turning it into Guns N’ Roses’ biggest album. The guitar work on this song is just killer!

ScorpionsRaised on Rock

I suppose writing a post about heavy rock without acknowledging German veterans Scorpions would border on treason. The band from the city of Hannover first entered my radar screen with Love at First Sting, their hugely successful ninth studio album they released in March 1984, 12 years into their recording career. I seem to recall reading somewhere there were times before then when Scorpions were more famous elsewhere than in their home country. With hits, such as Rock You Like a Hurricane, Big City Nights and Still Loving You, Love at First Sting definitely changed that. Scorpions continue to rock and roll to this day. In April, they released a new tune, Sign of Hope, a classic Scorpions-style ballad, inspired by COVID-19. According to a statement on their website, they have been working on songs for a new album. The tune I decided to feature here appeared 26 years after Love at First Sting. Raised on Rock is the opener to the band’s 17th studio album Sting in the Tail from March 2010, which together with the supporting tour was positioned as their farewell. Then, they decided they simply couldn’t stop.

AC/DCPlay Ball

Let’s wrap up things with a great late-career rocker by AC/DC. Play Ball is from their 16th studio album Rock or Bust, which is the band’s most recent to date from November 2014. There have been reports about a new album for some time, largely fueled by Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider, who apparently is close to AC/DC. According to this NME story from late July, the album is already in the can, but it’s release has been delayed due to COVID-19. It sounds like thanks to some technology wizardry, it will feature the classic lineup including Malcolm Young and be the band’s final album. For now, let’s focus on actually released AC/DC music. Co-written by Malcolm Young prior to his forced retirement due to dementia and his younger brother Angus Young, Play Ball was the lead single from Rock or Bust, which appeared in October 2014, preceding the album by one month – a classic AC/DC rocker!

Jeez, after listening to ten heavy rock tunes, my ears are exhausted. Yesterday, the long-awaited reissue of The Rolling Stones’ Goat Heads Soup came out. I think I’m just about ready for Angie. A-Angie, A-Angie/When will this hard rock disappear/Angie, Angie/where will it lead from here…

Sources: Wikipedia; Scorpions website; NME; YouTube

Walter Trout Releases Powerful New Album

Ordinary Madness reflects on blues rock veteran’s eventful life and himself

When I saw Walter Trout at The Iridium in New York City last April, I was struck how openly he talked about the challenges life has thrown at him. One sentence stayed with me in particular: “Personally, I’m happy to be anywhere.” Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction in the ’80s, surviving liver failure and recovering from a liver transplant in 1994, and dealing with dishonest management people are some of the chapters in Trout’s long career. Now, the 69-old blues rock veteran is out with his 29th album Ordinary Madness, on which he reflects about his life and himself.

“There’s a lot of extraordinary madness going on right now,” said Trout in a statement issued by Mascot Label Group, which includes his label Provogue. “This album started because I was dealing with the flaws and weakness inside me. But it ended up being about everyone.” Ordinary Madness may also well be one of Trout’s most compelling albums he has released in his 50-year-plus music career.

When Trout’s previous blues cover collection Survivor Blues came out in January 2019, it was supposed to be packaged with a second album of original songs, he told American Blues Scene. But the second album wasn’t ready and Trout didn’t have the time to finish it, since he went on the road to support Survivor Blues, the tour during which I caught him. After he returned home and listened to the previously recorded material, he decided to scrap most of it and start over.

Photo credit: Bob Steshetz

“When you are in a blues band you are either in a bus or a van driving for five to six hours at a time,” Trout said, reflecting on his last tour. “I was doing a lot of looking out the window and watching cities, cornfields, and forests go by. I found myself doing a lot of self-reflection about my life and myself. I started writing little notes to myself and I didn’t expect them to be lyrics.” Well, they did, and together with Trout’s great guitar playing, they make for a compelling listening experience. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the album’s opener and title track. The song starts with what Trout called “a little electronic psychedelia thing,” before launching into a powerful mid-tempo blues. That intro was created by Jon Trout, one of Walter’s three sons who are all musicians. “Jon is getting ready to start at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Denmark as an Electronic Music Major,” Trout proudly noted. “As great of a guitar player as he is, since he has been twelve, he has also done electronic music.” The tune’s lyrics set the tone for the album. It’s ordinary madness/It’s the everyday kind/It ain’t nothing special/It’s just there in your mind/It’s the sadness and the fear/And the anger that you feel every day/It just lays there in your gut/And it won’t go away/It’s just ordinary madness/And it’s here inside of me/Yes, it’s here inside of me…

While I highlighted Wanna Dance in a previous Best of What’s New installment, I just couldn’t could skip this tune, which to me is one of the standouts on the album. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. “The way the two guitars play off each other. I recorded the song and brought it home and was playing it for my kids and my 18-year old said it sounds more like Neil Van Halen and walked out of the room!” Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in live, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. This tune just grabs me with what I feel is an epic vibe.

On My Foolish Pride Trout shows he can write more than just blistering blues rockers. The acoustic ballad’s theme came from a phrase he had written down during his last tour on one of the above long bus rides, he told American Blues Scene. “I had my little notebook that I write in on the road and I went through it and found, “Sometimes I do my best, but I fail and I know that happens to everyone. Then I try to hide away my shame, but I get all wrapped up in myself.”…I had not written it to be lyrical. I started strumming my guitar at home and that became the first verse of my song “Foolish Pride.” That is why the first verse of the song does not rhyme because it wasn’t written to be lyrical. I had to write the rest of the song, but I already had the theme to the song which was examining my own limitations, flaws, and weaknesses. Dealing with your humanity, aging, and relationships are all themes examined on this record.” I just love the warm sound of this tune and the Hammond organ’s beautiful contribution in this context.

The slow blues All Out Of Tears is another highlight on the album. I also have to say while Trout undoubtedly is a better guitarist and songwriter than a vocalist, I feel his singing on this and other tracks works very well. I woke up thinking/ That you might be coming home/Then I realized I was dreamin’/That I just laid there all alone/Everyday without you/You know it feel just like a hundred years/My heart is crying/But my eyes are dry/And I’v run out of tears to cry/I’m all out of tears… It’s a classic blues that reminds me a bit of Gary Moore.

I’d like to feature one more song Trout called out when American Blues Scene asked whether he had a favorite tune on the album: Heaven In Your Eyes. “It has sentimental value to me because I was sitting around the living room when I was putting it together,” Trout explained. “I was strumming my acoustic guitar and I came up with this very melodic kind of tune. The melody was very much like a McCartney song. It needed a lot of words and the only line I had was heaven in your eyes. I didn’t know what to do with it. I played it for Marie [Trout’s wife Marie Braendgaard]. She walked out of the room and came back half an hour later with the lyrics. Lyrically the song is all her. She is also the lyricist on three other songs on the record. We have become the songwriting team.”

On Ordinary Madness Trout is backed by his touring band featuring Teddy ‘Zig Zag’ Andreadis (keyboards), Johnny Griparic (bass) and Michael Leasure  (drums). There is also his long-time producer Eric Corne and special guests including Skip Edwards (keyboards), Drake ‘Munkihaid’ Shining (keyboards) and Anthony Grisham (guitar). The album was recorded at former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s private studio in Los Angeles and completed just days before the U.S. shutdown due to COVID-19.

“It is my favorite studio in the world,” Trout said to American Blues Scene. “The guy who runs the studio and is Robby’s partner is Michael Dumas. Michael is the nicest guy and he is there to help you however he can. Robby has a huge collection of gear. There are all sorts of guitars, amps, drums, and keyboards. Everything you can imagine is there…One day, on my song “Wanna Dance” Robby came in and listened to my solo. He stood there and at the end of the solo he looked over at me and he had a great big smile on his face. That felt great.”

I’d like to wrap things up with something Trout told American Songwriter, which I think perfectly sums up what he’s all about. “The word authentic with the blues can get you into trouble. People say, ‘you’re a white kid from the suburbs, how can you be authentic?’ I’m not from Clarksdale, Mississippi and I didn’t pick cotton. To me, the only way for me to be authentic is to play from my heart and my soul with all the honesty and meaning I can put into the music. If I can play a gig and then get to the hotel and look in the mirror and say I gave them everything I have tonight and played from my heart with all the emotion and feeling I can convey to them, then that’s how I can be authentic. I have to be authentic to who I am.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Mascot Label Group; American Blues Scene; American Songwriter; YouTube