Toto Delivers Top-Notch Musicianship at State Theatre New Jersey

40th anniversary tour gig features career-spanning set, including big hits, deeper cuts and covers

While I have listened to Toto for more than 30 years, I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. But my wife really likes them, so when I mentioned to her a couple of months ago they would play in our neck of the woods as part of their 40th anniversary tour, she suggested that we see them. I’m glad we did Wednesday night at State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick, since the show was fun and definitely exceeded my expectations.

When I checked setlist.fm for the most recent gigs of the 40 Trips Around The Sun tour, initially, I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t see any songs from Toto’s second studio album Hydra, especially 99. I also found it interesting that they chose to include three somewhat random-looking covers in their set, though it turned out these selections weren’t coincidental. 

Toto
Core members of Toto (from left): Joseph Williams, David Paich, Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather

I’ve always appreciated Toto for their outstanding musicianship, which was on full display Wednesday night and a key reason why I enjoyed the show. Not only did they sound fantastic, but some of the music they played had pretty impressive complexity that nicely illustrated the band’s top-notch craftsmanship. Shockingly, to me the highlight in this context was Jake To The Bone, an instrumental from 1993. I say “shockingly” since I generally really like vocals and I’m less into instrumentals. With that, let’s get to some music.

The first time I heard about Toto must have been in the late ’70s when a friend gave me a rock compilation as a present, which included Hold The Line. I liked this tune right away and still do to this day, especially the keyboard and guitar parts. Written by keyboardist David Paich, the song first appeared on the band’s eponymous studio album from October 1978.

Next up is the above mentioned Jake To The Bone from the band’s eighth studio record Kingdom Of Desire, released in Europe in September 1992 and in the U.S. in May 1993. It was credited to all core members of the band at the time: Steve Lukather (guitar, lead and backing vocals), David Paich (piano, organ, synthesizer, backing vocals), Mike Porcaro (bass) and Jeff Porcaro (drums, percussion).  Unfortunately, I missed videotaping this great instrumental, so I’m relying on another clip I found on YouTube. Apparently, it was captured during the opening show of the tour’s European leg in Helsinki, Finland back in February.

Toto’s fourth studio album from April 1982, ingeniously called Toto IV, became their most successful record. Apart from top 10 chart placements in various countries, including Australia (no. 1), Canada (no. 1), U.S. (no. 4) and U.K. (no. 4), Toto IV also won a Grammy for Album Of The Year and five additional Grammy Awards in 1983. Here is the record’s lead single Rosanna, another Paich composition.

During the second half of the set, there was a sitdown section featuring shortened versions of various songs, including Holyanna, No Love, Stop Loving You and a cover of Human Nature, one of the tracks from Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. Originally, that tune was written by keyboardist Steve Porcaro. The tune I’d like to feature from this section is Stop Loving You. Toto first recorded it for The Seventh One, their seventh studio album from March 1988. Co-written by Paich and Lukather, the tune also became one of the record’s six singles.

Of course, no Toto gig would be complete without Africa, another track from Toto IV. Co-written by Paich and Jeff Porcaro, the song became Toto’s most successful single. It hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, climbed to no. 3 in the U.K., and scored top 20 positions in various other countries. Africa was the last song of the regular set, and the band stretched it into a close to 13-minute jam version that featured a cool percussion and drums solo.

There was only one encore: A cover of Hash Pipe, a 2001 song by American rock band Weezer. Toto decided to record and release the tune in August 2018, after Weezer had come out with cover versions of Africa and Rosanna. While it’s nice the bands recognize each other’s music with these covers, I still found it a bit of an odd choice for the encore, especially given that was the only additional song Toto performed. To me it would have made more sense to throw in an original tune like the above mentioned 99. That being said, the entire show lasted two hours, which I felt was pretty solid.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the band that performed on Wednesday night. Steve Lukather, Steve Pocaro and David Paich are still part of the core line-up. The fourth core member is Joseph Williams (lead vocals). Paich is sitting out the U.S. leg of the tour. According a previous announcement, the European gigs earlier this year took a toll on his health, but Lukather assured the audience his recovery is going well. Sitting in for Paich is Dominique “Xavier” Talpin, an excellent keyboardist who among others had played with Prince. The other touring members include Lenny Castro (percussion, congas), multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham (saxophone, harmonica, flute, backing vocals), Shannon Forrest (drums) and Shem von Schroeck (bass, backing vocals).

Upcoming tour dates include Brookville, N.Y. tonight and the closer of the American leg in Lynn, Mass. tomorrow night. The band resumes the tour at the end of December with a series of dates in Australia and New Zealand, before going to Japan in February. Then they take a break and return to Europe in June and July. The last currently posted date is Salem, Germany (Jul 18). The full schedule is here. This may not be the end of the tour. The dates in Australia and Japan were announced fairly recently, and I could see additional announcements, such as a second U.S. leg. 

Sources: Wikipedia, Toto website, YouTube

Buckingham/McVie Is Fleetwood Mac Sans Stevie Nicks

New album sticks to Fleetwood Mac’s tried and true pop rock formula

Initially, it was supposed to become the first new studio album of the classic Fleetwood Mac lineup since 1987’s Tango In the Night, after Stevie Nicks had announced plans to work with the band on new music in 2015. Then in Sep 2016, Nicks unexpectedly revealed she was going on the road with the Pretenders in support of her last solo album 24 Karat Gold – Songs From the Vault. So Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, who had started to work together on new material in 2014, decided to forge ahead as a duo, sort of – they did have a little help from their band mates Mick Fleetwood and John McVie.

“I just woke up one morning and said I have two years off before Fleetwood Mac comes knocking on my door [for another tour],” Nicks told The New York Times in Sep 2016, as she was gearing up for her tour with the Pretenders. “Why would I want to sit around and do nothing?” More recently, she voiced doubts there would be another (full) Fleetwood Mac record during an interview with Rolling Stone. “I don’t think there’s any reason to spend a year and an amazing amount of money on a record that, even if it has great things, isn’t going to sell. What we do is go on the road, do a ton of shows and make lots of money. We have a lot of fun. Making a record isn’t all that much fun.” Apparently, her Mac compatriots begged to differ. And the result?

Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie in studio

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie, which was released on June 9, pretty much sounds like a Fleetwood Mac album without Stevie Nicks. Given what a terrific songwriter she is, not to speak of her distinct voice, I was a bit skeptical what to expect. When listening to the album for the first time, I thought it sounded okay, but none of the ten tracks really stood out to me. After having listened to the record a few more times, I feel it’s solid pop rock. It doesn’t get close to Rumours, my favorite Mac album and one of the best records I know. But perhaps that’s an unfair comparison.

Buckingham/McVie saw the two artists work together on new material for the first time since 1987 – the year Fleetwood Mac released Tango In the Night. Buckingham left in Aug that year and Nicks followed him three years later. In 1997, McVie essentially retired from music after the band’s successful reunion tour with Buckingham and Nicks, which is captured on the fantastic live album The Dance. McVie rejoined Fleetwood Mac in 2014. At that time, Buckingham and Nicks had returned as well, so the band’s classic lineup was finally back together.

Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie in studio 2

In a just-published Rolling Stone story, Buckingham said he noticed “within the first hour” that “it was like, ‘Holy shit, whatever we used to have” was still working. “We’ve always connected musically in Fleetwood Mac,” added McVie, referring to their respective roles as the band’s guitarist and keyboard player. “We’re the only people who play more than one note. I’m not the best pianist, but I know how to interlace around what Lindsey’s playing.”

Explaining their approach to record the new album as a duo as opposed to making an official Fleetwood Mac record, Buckingham noted, “In the context of the band, there might have been more politics.” As the Rolling Stone story pointed out, Buckingham and McVie didn’t have a previous romantic relationship, unlike Buckingham and Nicks, Fleetwood and Nicks and of course McVie’s marriage to John McVie. “We are free of baggage,” McVie added. With the band’s complicated relationship entanglements out of the way, let’s finally turn to the music!

The album kicks off with Sleeping Around the Corner, a tune Buckingham initially had included as a bonus track on his 2011 solo album Seeds We Sow. The tune starts off in a somewhat grim manner: She called to me, “Meet me at the border”/Oh, wake me up, oh, when my papers are in order. It then launches into a cheerful sounding chorus: “Lord, I don’t wanna bring you down/No, I never meant to give you a frown/I’m just sleepin’ around the corner.” The apparent disconnect between the music and the lyrics isn’t new for Fleetwood Mac. A Rolling Stone review of the album cleverly called it “California sunshine on the surface, but with a heart of darkness.” Okay, I’m not going to over-analyze it!

Next up is Feel About You, one of album’s three Buckingham/McVie co-writes. Here’s a clip from a recent performance on CBS This Morning Saturday.

In My World, the third track, is the album’s lead single. Written by Buckingham, the catchy tune sounds like hit material. Buckingham’s and McVie’ alternating “oh”, “aah”, “oh” are reminiscent of Big Love, one of the many hits from Tango In the Night. Here’s a nice clip from a recent performance on Jimmy Fallon.

The last song I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Carnival Begin, one of the two songs solely credited to McVie.

Buckingham/McView was recorded at Studio D at the Village Recorder in Los Angeles, the same studio Fleetwood Mac used for the 1979 album Tusk. “There was some worry about whether it was a good idea to come back here,” Fleetwood told the Los Angeles Times in early May. “Maybe it would be better to go someplace new, someplace we hadn’t worked before. But since we started working here, it couldn’t be more fantastic.” As noted at the outset, Fleetwood and John McVie were actively involved in the recording of the album, “the greatest rhythm section there is,” as Buckingham put it.

Speaking of great musicianship, I think Buckingham is an outstanding musician and one of the most underrated guitarists, both electric and acoustic. Like on many Fleetwood Mac albums, sadly, his talent on this record oftentimes gets a bit lost in the production. Perhaps the best way to experience Buckingham’s craftsmanship is to witness it live. In 2014, I saw a Fleetwood Mac show, just a few months prior to McVie rejoining the band. His performance was truly amazing. One of the highlights I still recall was his solo performance of Big Love on acoustic guitar. It was much better than the studio version on Tango In the Night and needed nothing else – no additional instruments, no additional vocals. Check out this clip!

Buckingham/McVie was produced by Buckingham, Mitchell Froom and Mark Needham. Froom has produced more than 60 albums and worked with numerous other top-notch artists, such as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and Bonnie Raitt, to name a few. He also contributed keyboards on the album. Needham’s impressive credits include Fleetwood Mac (mixing of Say You Will [2003] and Live in Boston [2004]), John Hiatt, Elton John and Stevie Nicks, among others.

Buckingham and McVie will go on the road to promote the new album. The tour, which includes 14 dates, will kick off in Atlanta on June 21 and wrap up in Denver on July 27. On July 15 & 16 and July 29 & 30, they will join their Fleetwood Mac mates for performances at the Classic West and Classic East festivals. For additional thoughts on these events, read here.  Fleetwood Mac is also planning a big tour in 2018. “We’re going to start rehearsing in March, next year,” Christine McVie told NME. “The tour is around June. It will be global.” Separately, she characterized it as a “farewell tour” during an interview with Uncut, but then appeared to caveat it: “But you take farewell tours one at a time. Somehow we always come together, this unit. We can feel it ourselves.”

Finally, here’s a nice clip about the making of Buckingham/McVie.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, YouTube, Los Angeles Times, Lindsey Buckingham web site, NME, Uncut

Sheryl Crow’s New Album Is a Nice Return to Her 90s Pop Rock Roots

After a winding road via Memphis soul and country music, Sheryl Crow returns to her pop rock origins of her early records in the 90s.

The title of Sheryl Crow’s new album, Be Myself, is a statement that you shouldn’t try to be somebody else than you really are. It also nicely fits the singer-songwriter’s conclusion that seeking success in the world of country came with unexpected roadblocks and requirements, which ultimately made the genre the wrong fit for her.

While Crow said she enjoyed the songwriting for her 2013 country album, which ironically was titled Feels Like Home, there were other things she didn’t like. “What I didn’t expect is that [country radio programmers] really don’t play women unless it’s Carrie [Underwood] and Miranda [Lambert], ” Crow told the Los Angeles Times. “The other thing I didn’t expect is how much you have to make yourself available to record promoters and radio programmers,” a tough proposition for Crow who is raising two young school-age children by herself.

Released last Fri (Apr. 21), Be Myself is Crow’s 10th studio album. Not only did she decide to return to her pop rock-oriented style of the 90s, she also collaborated with two people who played an important role during that period: Songwriter Jeff Trott and audio engineer Tchad Blake, who had been involved in Crow’s 1996 eponymous studio album and the 1998 follow-on, The Globe Sessions. Both albums sold well and won Gammy awards. Trott, who also co-produced the new record together with Crow, co-wrote many of her hits over the years, such as Everyday is a Winding Road, My Favorite Mistake, Soak Up the Sun and If It Makes You Happy, which is perhaps my favorite Crow song.

Cheryl Crow

Fans of Crow’s early work won’t be disappointed with the new album. The opener Alone in the Dark pretty much reflects the style of the record: mid-tempo, guitar-oriented pop rock with catchy melodies. Halfway There, which was released as the first single in early March, has a nice grove with effective touches of funky guitar and horns. Other standouts are the title song with a nice rock guitar solo, and Roller Skate, which has a cool guitar riff. Another aspect I like about the album is the music craftsmanship. At 55 years old, Crow comes from a generation of musicians who believes music should be played on real instruments rather than generated in the computer.

Initial reactions to the album have been positive. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called it “excellent” and her “toughest, best in a decade.” Writing for AllMusic, Steven Thomas Erlewine characterized the album as “strong, sophisticated pop.” Blurt’s Tiffini Taylor concluded, “Sheryl Crow is presenting a great musical journey with Be Myself. It’s a journey that everyone should get on board with, one that will be listened to for a very long time.”

I’m less optimistic than Taylor about the album’s longevity, given it sounds very different from most of the mediocre stuff dominating the charts nowadays. But Crow, who has proven has herself and – it’s safe to assume – also made good money in the process, seems to be at ease. “There is something really fantastic about being my age,” she said in an interview with USA Today.  “I don’t worry about repeating myself or wanting to be a better producer, a better songwriter, a better this or that. On this record, I was like, screw that. Let’s just close the door and not worry about who hears this.”

Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of Alone in the Dark, which apparently was captured just a few days ago from a show in New York City’s Bowery Ballroom.

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, Blurt, USA Today, YouTube