Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This latest Best of What’s New installment coincides with the fifth anniversary of the blog, which was yesterday (June 25). If you’re curious, my inaugural post is here. Frankly, when I started this endeavor in June 2016, I really wasn’t sure whether I would stick with it. Lately, my time has been pretty limited to the point where I considered taking a break. But writing about music is way too much fun, so the show must go on! This brings me to my new music picks for this week: Three acts I had not heard of before, as well as a band I’ve known since the late ’70s and that is out with their first new music in a decade.

Lightning Bug/The Return

Lightning Bug are an indie pop band from Brooklyn, New York, which has been around for about 10 years. Unfortunately, there is very little official public information available on this band, so I’m largely relying on reviews by Spectral Nights, Stereogum and Americana Highways. Lightning Bug started out as a trio consisting of multi-instrumentalists Audrey Kang (lead vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, vocal loops, violin, synthesizer, electronics, bowed cymbal, bowed pedal steel), Kevin Copeland (background vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, pedal steel, sampler, piano, bass guitar, bowed electric guitar, drum programming) and Logan Miley (sampler, modular synthesizer, drum programming, bass synthesizer, piano, electric guitar, electronics). After signing with record label Fat Possum in 2020, they added Vincent Puleo (bass, acoustic guitar) and Dane Hagen (drums, acoustic guitar) to the line-up. The Return, co-written by Kang, Copeland and Miley, is the opener to Lightning Bug’s third and new album A Color of the Sky released yesterday. I find the dreamy and spacy sound and Kang’s soft voice quite soothing.

The Mountain Goats/Mobile

The Mountain Goats are an indie folk rock band founded by singer-songwriter John Darnielle in Claremont, Calif. in 1991. For many years, the group’s sole permanent member was Darnielle who relied on collaborators. The first release under the name The Mountain Goats was a cassette in 1991, titled Taboo VI: The Homecoming. The first full-length album Zopilote Machine appeared in 1994. Starting with their seventh album Tallahassee from November 2002, The Mountain Goats started recording as a full band. The catalog released to date under the name The Mountain Goats includes about 20 albums and more than 25 EPs and singles. In addition to Darnielle (vocals, guitar, keyboards), the band’s current core members include Matt Douglas (flute, saxophone, clarinet, guitar, keyboard, backing vocals), Peter Hughes (bass, backing vocals) and Jon Wurster (drums). Here’s Mobile from their new album Dark in Here, which came out yesterday. Like all other tracks, it was written by Darnielle. Great sound!

Journey/The Way We Used to Be

Undoubtedly, some eyes are going to roll when they see the name Journey. Call it arena rock or pop rock or whatever else you want. Since I first heard Wheel in the Sky on the radio in Germany back in the late ’70s, I always thought Journey had some good songs. Formed as Golden Gate Rhythm Section in San Francisco in 1973 by former members of the Santana band Neal Schon (lead guitar) and Gregg Rollie (keyboards), along with George Tickner (rhythm guitar), Ross Valory (bass) and future drummer of The Tubes, Prairie Prince, the band initially was conceived as a back-up group for Bay Area artists. However, they quickly abandoned the concept, renamed themselves Journey and released their eponymous debut record in April 1975, a progressive rock album. After Steve Perry became Journey’s lead vocalist in October 1977, they adopted a much more pop rock-oriented sound and entered their commercially most successful period. Following Perry’s departure in 1998, the band brought in Steve Augeri as their new lead vocalist. Due to vocal issues his tenure with Journey ended in July 2006. In December 2007, Filipino singer-songwriter Arnel Pineda became the band’s new vocalist after Neal Schon had seen videos of him on YouTube. Journey have also been through multiple other changes in their line-up over the decades. The current formation features Schon (lead guitar, backing vocals), Pineda (lead vocals), Jonathan Cain (keyboards, backing vocals) and Randy Jackson (bass), along with new members Narada Michael Walden (drums) and Jason Derlatka (keyboards, backing vocals). On June 24, Journey released The Way We Used Be, a single and their first new music since their most recent studio album Eclipse from May 2011. Based on this Billboard story, a new album is in the works as well. It’s not exactly Who’s Crying Now, Don’t Stop Believin’ or Open Arms, but it still does sound like Journey.

Mannequin Pussy/To Lose You

Mannequin Pussy are a punk and indie rock band from Philadelphia. They were initially founded in October 2010 as a duo by Marisa Dabice (vocals, guitar) and Athanasios Paul (drums) who had met each other in school. In early 2013, Drew Adler joined on drums and Paul moved to guitar. In October that year, the band’s first album appeared as a limited cassette-only edition. It was subsequently re-released in 2014 by their new label Tiny Engines and later renamed Mannequin Pussy. In 2016, Mannequin Pussy became a four piece with the addition of Colins “Bear” Regisford on bass. Two additional albums have since come out, as well as two EPs. Dabice remains as the only original member of the band’s current line-up, which also features Regisford and Kaleen Reading (drums) who replaced Adler in 2015. To Lose You is a track from the latter from the EP Perfect, released on May 21. Kind of catchy!

Sources: Wikipedia; Spectral Nights; Stereogum; Americana Highway; Billboard; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Hope everybody is enjoying their weekend. It’s another Sunday, which means it’s time again for what has become my favorite recurring feature of the blog. The Sunday Six is where I feel I can stretch out, featuring all types of music from different decades. This new installment illustrates my point. It includes genres like instrumental pop, jazz pop, roots rock, country rock and blues rock, and touches on the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2010s. Are you ready to embark on a little music journey?

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Let’s get in the mood with a beautiful instrumental by Carlos Santana. He may not be the most sophisticated guitarist from a strictly technical standpoint, but his tone is just unbelievable. I know of no other guitarist who sounds like Santana, and that’s what ultimately matters, not whether you’re a fretboard acrobat. While I generally most love his classic period that spans his first three albums, the tune I picked for this post, Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile), is from Moonflower released in October 1977. The double album features both studio and live tracks. She’s Not There, a nice cover of a song originally recorded by The Zombies in the mid-’60s, became a top 30 hit single for Santana. Europa, co-written by Carlos Santana and Tom Coster, first appeared on the March 1976 studio record Amigos. I’m more familiar with Moonflower, so I’m going with the live version here. Listen to this majestic guitar sound – so good!

Gino Vannelli/Brother to Brother

I don’t recall seeing any posts by my fellow bloggers about Gino Vannelli. While the Canadian singer-songwriter has been around as a recording artist since 1973, I suspect he may not necessarily be a household name. That being said, I assume most folks have heard some of his hits, such as the ballads I Just Wanna Stop (1978) and Living Inside Myself (1981), as well as the pop rock tunes Black Cars (1984) and Wild Horses (1987). Vannelli remains active to this day and has released 17 studio records, three live albums and one greatest hits compilation, according to Wikipedia. Brother to Brother is the amazing title track of his sixth studio album that came out in September 1978. While I Just Wanna Stop became the big hit off that album, the jazz-oriented Brother to Brother is far better. Written by Vannelli, the tune reaches the sophistication of Steely Dan’s Aja album, in my humble opinion. If you haven’t listened to this track before and like the Dan, check it out. You might be surprised!

Bonnie Raitt/Love Letter

Those who are familiar with my music taste may wonder what took me so long to feature Bonnie Raitt, one of favorite artists, in The Sunday Six. I don’t really have a good answer other than ‘better late than never!’ My long-time music buddy from Germany introduced me to Raitt in the late ’80s. I guess it must have been her 10th studio album Nick of Time, which to me remains a true gem to this day. While Raitt mostly relies on other songwriters, I love her renditions and her cool slide guitar playing. She also strikes me as no B.S., which is certainly not a very common quality in the oftentimes ego-driven music business. Nick of Time is perhaps best known for the single Thing Called Love, though according to Wikipedia, its chart success was moderate. The John Hiatt tune reached no. 86 on the UK Singles Chart and missed the mainstream chart in the U.S. altogether – though it did climb to no. 11 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. My pick from the album is Love Letter, written by another Bonnie, American singer-songwriter Bonnie Hayes. I simply love everything about this tune – the groove, the singing and Raitt’s sweet slide guitar sound.

John Mellencamp/Under the Boardwalk

John Mellencamp is another artist I’ve listened to for many years. If I recall it correctly, it was his eighth studio album Scarecrow released in August 1985 with tunes like Small Town and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. that started my long and ongoing journey exploring the music by the heartland and roots rocker from Seymour, Ind. Sure, I could have selected a track from that album. Or from the excellent successor The Lonesome Jubilee from August 1987, which remains among my all-time favorite Mellencamp records. Instead, I decided to highlight an album that isn’t as well known but still great, in my view: Rough Harvest. Released in August 1999 (that month appears to be a favorite for his records!), the album features a collection of alternate, roots-oriented versions of Mellencamp originals and covers. Under the Boardwalk, of course, falls into the latter category. The first version of the song I ever heard was the great rendition by The Rolling Stones. Co-written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick, it was first recorded by The Drifters in 1964 and became a no. 4 U.S. hit for the American doo-wop, R&B and soul vocal group. I think Mellencamp’s rootsy version takes the tune to a new level – just love it!

Cordovas/This Town’s a Drag

If you’ve followed my blog for some time, the name Cordovas may sound familiar; or perhaps you’ve heard otherwise of this Americana and country rock band from East Nashville, Tenn. They first entered my radar screen in the summer of 2018 when I caught them during a free concert in a park not far from my house. The group’s multi-part harmony singing proved to be an immediate attraction. So was their sound that reminds me of bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & YoungThe BandGrateful DeadEagles and Little Feat. Led by bassist Joe Firstman, Cordovas have been around for more than 10 years. This Town’s a Drag is the opener of That Santa Fe Channel, the band’s third studio album from August 2018, which I previously reviewed here. Check out that beautiful warm sound!

Jimi Hendrix/Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

I guess the time has come again to wrap up another Sunday Six installment. Let’s make it count with a smoking rocker by Jimi Hendrix who I trust needs no introduction. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is the fiery closer of Electric Ladyland, the third and final album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, released in October 1968. Like most other tracks on this double album, the tune was written by Hendrix. The clip is taken from Live in Maui, one of the many post-mortem releases from the Hendrix archives. It captures an outdoor performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience on July 30, 1970 on the Hawaiian island, only six weeks prior to Jimi’s untimely death on September 18 that year. Unlike Electric Ladyland, the band’s line-up during the gig featured Billy Cox on bass instead of Noel Redding. Mitch Mitchell was on drums, just like on the studio album. The 2-CD and 3-LP set came out on November 20, 2020, along with a video documentary titled Music, Money, Madness … Jimi Hendrix in Maui. It has received mixed reviews due to less than ideal recording conditions. I still think it’s cool to actually watch Hendrix in action rather than just listening to his blistering performance.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

It’s Only A Cover But I Like It

The Rolling Stones done by other artists

Cover versions of songs can be intriguing and sometimes even better than the originals. An example of the latter I always come back to is Joe Cocker’s incredible rendition of With a Little Help From My Friends. There are also other great covers of Beatles tunes. Fellow blogger Hanspostcard is currently dedicating an entire series to this topic, titled Under The Covers: Other Artists Covering Beatles Songs. In part, it was his great series that inspired the idea for this post. Since I already wrote about covers of Fab Four tunes, I decided to focus on another of my all time favorite bands: The Rolling Stones.

While I figured it shouldn’t be very difficult to find renditions of Stones tunes by other artists, I only knew a handful of covers and wasn’t sure what else I would find. It turned out that seven of the 10 covers I ended up selecting for this post were new to me. My picks span the Stones’ music from the ’60s and early ’70s, which is I generally feel is their best period. All tunes were written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Let’s get to it.

The Grass Roots/Tell Me

Kicking it off are The Grass Roots, an American rock band that has been around since 1965. Their debut studio album Where Were You When I Needed You from October 1966 featured a few covers including Tell Me, a tune that first appeared on The Rolling Stones’ eponymous debut album in the UK released in April 1964. The U.S. version, which had a slightly different track list, appeared six weeks later.

Mekons/Heart of Stone

In 1988, British post punk rock band Mekons released their seventh studio album So Good It Hurts. It included this nice rendition of Heart of Stone, a Stones tune that first came out in December 1964 as a U.S. single. It also was included on the U.S. and U.K. albums The Rolling Stones, Now! (February 1965) and Out of Our Heads (September 1965), respectively.

The Who/The Last Time

After Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been busted and imprisoned on drug charges in 1967, their friends The Who went to the studio to record a single intended to help them make bail: The Last Time, backed by Under My Thumb. Even though everything was done in a great rush, by the time the single hit the stores, the Glimmer Twins already had been released. Since John Entwistle was away on his honeymoon, he gave his okay to proceed without him. Pete Townshend ended up overdubbing the bass parts. Initially, The Last Time was the first original The Rolling Stones song released as a single in the UK in February 1965, yielding their third no. 1 hit on the Singles Chart. It came out in the U.S. two weeks later, reaching no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Alexis Korner/Get Off Of My Cloud

Alexis Korner, who has rightfully been called “a founding father of British blues,” had a major influence on the British music scene in the 1960s. His band Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated was a breeding ground for UK musicians who at various times included artists like Jack Bruce, Graham Bond, Ginger Baker, Cyril Davies, as well as then-future Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. Get Off Of My Cloud became the title track of Korner’s 1975 studio album. Originally, the Stones released the song as the follow-on single to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in September 1965, matching that tune’s previous chart-topping success in the U.S., UK and Germany. Get Off Of My Cloud was also included on the Stones’ fifth U.S. album December’s Children (And Everybody’s) released in December that year.

Melanie/Ruby Tuesday

Ruby Tuesday has been among my favorite Stones tunes for a long time. I also think the cover by American singer-songwriter Melanie is among the most compelling renditions of Stones songs. Melanie’s great version first appeared on her third studio album Candles in the Rain from April 1970 and was also released as a single in December of the same year. The Stones recorded the original for their 1967 studio album Between the Buttons that appeared in January and February that year in the UK and U.S., respectively. The song also became the album’s lead single and another no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, it climbed to no. 3 on the Singles Chart.

Molly Tuttle/She’s a Rainbow

While I’ve featured Molly Tuttle’s version of She’s a Rainbow before, I simply couldn’t resist including it in this post as well. Similar to Ruby Tuesday and Melanie, the tune represents both one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs and one of the greatest renditions I know. Tuttle, an incredibly talented acoustic guitarist, included it on her most recent album …but i’d rather be with you, which came out in August 2020. She’s a Rainbow first appeared on Their Satanic Majesties Request, a studio album the Stones put out in December 1967. Two weeks after its release, it also became the record’s second single.

Bettye LaVette/Salt of the Earth

Here’s another really cool cover: Salt of the Earth by American vocalist Bettye LaVette, who has touched many genres, including soul, blues, rock & roll, funk, gospel and country. She recorded Salt of the Earth for an album titled Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook and released in May 2010. The soul and gospel vibe is perfect for this tune, which the Stones included on their Beggars Banquet album from December 1968.

Larry McCray/Midnight Rambler

Larry McCray is an American blues guitarist and singer, who has been active since the ’80s and released his debut album Ambition in 1990. I had not heard of him before. His cover of Midnight Rambler is included on a Stones tribute album from August 2002, which is called All Blues’d Up: Songs of The Rolling Stones. I haven’t listened to the rest of the album yet, but based on the track list and other participating artists, it surely looks intriguing. The Stones recorded Midnight Rambler for their studio album Let It Bleed that came out in December 1969. According to Wikipedia, Keith Richards has called it “the quintessential Jagger-Richards song.”

Santana/Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (feat. Scott Weiland)

Now we’ve come to Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, a gem from what I consider to be the best Stones album: Sticky Fingers released in April 1971. Carlos Santana covered the tune on his 21st studio album Guitar Heaven from September 2010, a compilation of classic rock covers featuring many guest vocalists: In this case, Scott Weiland, former lead vocalist of Stone Temple Pilots. Weiland who had struggled with addiction and other health issues for many years died in December 2015 from a drug overdose.

The Pointer Sisters/Happy

I’d like to wrap up this post on a happy note, literally, with a great rendition of Happy by The Pointer Sisters. It was included on their sixth studio album Priority, which came out in September 1979 and was their second foray into rock. Their first was predecessor Energy from November 1978, which among others featured one of their biggest hits: Fire, the Bruce Springsteen tune. Originally, Happy appeared on what many Stones fans consider the band’s best album: Exile on Main St. from May 1972. Happy, backed by All Down the Line, also became the record’s second single in July 1972.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

A Green Guitar God with a Unique Tone and Soulful Voice

In memoriam of Peter Green

“Playing fast is something I used to do with John [Mayall] when things weren’t going well. But it isn’t any good. I like to play slowly and feel every note.” I think this quote from Peter Green, which was included in a June 16, 2020 feature by Guitar World, nicely reflects the philosophy of the English guitarist. About six weeks after that story had been published, Green passed away “peacefully in his sleep” on July 25, 2020 at the age of 73, as reported by the BBC and many other media outlets. This post is a late recognition of a great artist I only had known from some of his excellent work with the early Fleetwood Mac.

It’s really unfortunate that oftentimes it takes a death or other tragic event to get somebody on your radar screen. When it came to Peter Green, I first and foremost viewed him as this great British guitarist who wrote the fantastic tune Black Magic Woman, which I initially thought was a Santana song, and Albatross, an instrumental with one of the most beautiful guitar tones I’ve ever heard. As I started to explore some of Green’s post-Fleetwood Mac work, perhaps one of the biggest revelations was that apart from his guitar chops he also had a pretty good voice.

This post doesn’t aim to be a traditional obituary. You can find plenty of such pieces elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to focus on Green’s music, especially beyond Fleetwood Mac. Interestingly, Peter Allen Greenbaum who was born in London on October 29, 1946, started his music career as a bassist. According to the above BBC story, it was an encounter with none other than a young Eric Clapton that convinced Green to switch to guitar. “I decided to go back on lead guitar after seeing him with the Bluesbreakers. He had a Les Paul, his fingers were marvellous. The guy knew how to do a bit of evil, I guess.”

Not only did Green manage to retool fairly quickly, but before he knew it, he ended up replacing Clapton in The Bluesbreakers. Here’s a nice anecdote that’s included in the previously noted feature in Guitar World. When John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers assembled for the sessions to record their sophomore album A Hard Road in October 1966, producer Mike Vernon nervously asked, “Where’s Eric Clapton?” Mayall replied, “He’s not with us any more, but don’t worry, we’ve got someone better.” Apparently, somewhat in disbelief, Vernon said, “You’ve got someone better – than Eric Clapton?” Mayall responded, “He might not be better now, but in a couple of years, he’s going to be the best.” The Godfather of British Blues simply knew talent when he saw it!

Here’s The Supernatural from A Hard Road, a track Green wrote. Check out that mighty guitar tone! It reminds me a bit of Black Magic Woman. The instrumental helped establish Green’s trademark sound and earn him the nickname “The Green God.” In case you didn’t know what inspired the post’s headline, now you do!

By July 1967, Green had left The Bluesbreakers and formed his new band initally called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac Featuring Jeremy Spencer. Apart from Green (vocals, guitar, harmonica), the lineup included Mick Fleetwood (drums), Jeremy Spencer (vocals, slide guitar, piano) and John McVie (bass). Not only had all of them been previous members of The Bluesbreakers, but John Mayall turned out to be the band’s enabler by offering Green free recording time. Mayall strikes me as somebody who was more than happy to provide apprenticeships to talented up and coming musicians! Here’s Long Grey Mere, a tune Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac, the February 1968 debut by the band that by then was called Peter Greene’s Fleetwood Mac. Bob Brunning, who technically was the band’s first bassist before John McVie joined, played bass on the track.

In early 1970, Fleetwood Mac were on tour in Europe. At that time, Green had become a frequent user of LSD. In Munich, Germany, he ended up visiting a hippie commune and “disappearing” for three days. A New York Times obituary included a later quote from Green saying he “went on a trip, and never came back.” After a final performance on May 20 that year, he left Fleetwood Mac. The following month, Green started work on what became his first solo album, The End of the Game. Released in December of the same year, the record featured edited free-form jazz rock jam sessions, marking a radical departure from his music with the Mac. Here’s the title track.

Following his solo debut, Green’s output became unsteady. In 1971, he briefly reunited with Fleetwood Mac, filling in for Jeremy Spencer after his departure to help the band complete their U.S. tour under the pseudonym Peter Blue. Beasts of Burden is a single Green recorded with fellow British guitarist Nigel Watson, who many years later would become part of Peter Green Splinter Group. The tune later was added to an expanded version of the above album.

Eventually, Green’s mental health issues took a heavy toll. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and ended up being in psychiatric hospitals in the mid-’70s, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy – yikes! To me, this frighteningly sounds like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1975 picture starring Jack Nicholson, one of his best performances I’ve ever watched. Luckily, Green reemerged professionally and in May 1979 released his sophomore solo album In the Skies. Here’s the great title track and opener, which Green co-wrote with his wife Jane Greene (nee Samuels) whom he had married in January 1978. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived and ended in divorce in 1979.

Starting with his next album Little Dreamer from April 1980, Green mostly relied on others to write songs for him, including his brother Mike Green (born Michael Greenbaum) for next few years. Here’s the groovy opener Loser Two Times. While the song was written by Mike Green, one cannot help but notice these words feel very autobiographic. I’m a loser two times/I’m a loser two times/I tried to change my ways but I was too blind/I lost my money, I lost my girl/And now I’ve almost lost my mind/Yes, I’m a loser two times…

Peter Green’s first reemergence from his health challenges ended with Kolors, his sixth solo album from 1983, which largely consisted of songs from previous recording sessions that had been unreleased. According to The New York Times, Green’s medications essentially incapacitated him. Eventually, he managed to wean himself from prescription tranquilizers in the ’90s. In 1997, he returned to music for the second time with Peter Green Splinter Group. Here’s Homework from their eponymous first album, a tune by Dave Clark and Al Perkins I had known and liked for many years by The J. Geils Band. The Splinter Group’s rendition features Green on lead vocals.

Time Traders, which appeared in October 2001, was the Splinter Group’s sixth album. Unlike their predecessors that had largely featured covers, especially of Robert Johnson, Time Traders entirely consisted of original tunes that had been written by members of the band. Here’s Underway, an instrumental by Green, which first had appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s third studio album Then Play On from September 1969. The track showcases more of that magic tone Green got out of his guitar.

February 2003 saw the release of the Splinter Group’s eighth and final album Reaching the Cold 100. Here’s Don’t Walk Away From Me, written by Roger Cotton, who played guitar, keyboards and organ in the band, featuring Green on guitar and vocals. Beautiful tune with a great sound – and yet another good example of Green’s vocal abilities!

The final track I’d like to highlight is Trouble in Mind, which Peter Green released together with Ian Stewart, Charlie Hart, Charlie Watts and Brian Knight in February 2009. Written by jazz pianist Richard M. Jones, the blues standard was first recorded by singer Thelma La Vizzo in 1924. It was also covered by Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and many other artists.

Peter Green was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 together with Fleetwood Mac, including Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie. In June 1996, Green was voted the third greatest guitarist of all time in Mojo magazine. And in December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him at no. 58 in their list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. No matter how you rank Peter Green, there’s no doubt the “Green God” was a master of tone and I think an undervalued vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; BBC; The New York Times; Rolling Stone; YouTube

When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

L.A. Funk Rock Band Cohort Releases Eponymous Studio Album

With Cohort being the second contemporary band I “discovered” in one day, it starts to feel a bit like I’m on a roll with stepping out of my ’60s and ’70s zone. At this time, it’s mostly some music from their new eponymous album I can offer, since there hardly seems to be any public information on this funk-oriented rock band. Cohort don’t even have a Facebook page, which I find somewhat puzzling. The following insights are based on Soundcloud and this YouTube clip.

Weirdly, just like my previous discovery Dustbowl Revival, Cohort hail from Venice, Los Angeles. What’s up with that? This beachfront neighborhood seems to be a hotbed for music! Cohort’s members include Tula Jussen (guitar, vocals), Josh Lipp (guitar), Miles Tobel (keyboards, saxophone), Jack Ross (bass) and Emilio Anamos (drums). They all seem to be quite young. The above YouTube clip, which was posted in July 2017, introduced them as a “teenage rock band.” But here’s the thing. No matter their age, they sound pretty mature on what seems to be their first full-fledged album.

Check out the following clips. Let’s kick things off with the funky opener Et, which features nice bass, guitar and sax work. This doesn’t exactly sound like some high school band!

Here’s another cool groovy tune: Oddball. Certainly nothing odd about this song.

Okay, do I have your attention? How about a softer tune? It still has a funky sound. Here’s Waiting (Return of the Relaxation).

Let’s do one more track. Here’s the nice closer Santa Ana. It’s another tune with a great groove. I also like the sax intro. Overall, I can hear a bit of a Santana vibe in here, especially if you imagine some congas and other percussion.

What else can I tell you about Cohort? In the above video, Jussen said, “We take a lot of influence from everywhere, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix.” That’s perhaps more obvious for the music they play in the clip than the tracks on this album.  I think this talented young band is on a promising path!

Sources: Soundcloud; YouTube

The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

They All Went Down To Yasgur’s Farm, And Everywhere There Was Song And Celebration

…By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong/And everywhere was a song and a celebration/And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes/Riding shotgun in the sky/Turning into butterflies/Above our nation… (excerpt from Joni Mitchell tune Woodstock)

Next week is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, which took place from August 15-18, 1969. Much has been written about this festival, which officially was titled the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The initiators Michael LangArtie KornfeldJoel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. The selection of the venue, which ended up being Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. The acts who were not invited or and those who were but chose to decline or didn’t make it there. The artists who performed at the event. The overcrowding with an audience exceeding 400,000 people, more than twice the 200,000 that had been expected, based on advance sales of 186,000 tickets. The mud bath conditions resulting from bad weather.

Woodstock Poster

As a huge fan of music from that era, it felt natural to commemorate this extraordinary moment in 20th Century entertainment history. At the same time, I did not want to create yet another write-up that recaps the history. Instead, this post focuses on what my blog is supposed to be all about: Music I love and therefore like to celebrate. Following are some performance highlights from Woodstock. Since I didn’t have strong feelings about a particular order, I decided to go chronologically.

Let’s kick it off with Richie Havens, the opening act on the first day, Friday, August 15, in the late afternoon, and his riveting performance of Freedom. It was an improvised encore based on the traditional spiritual Motherless Child. “When you hear me play that long intro, it’s me stalling. I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to sing?'” he later explained, according to Songfacts. “I think the word ‘freedom’ came out of my mouth because I saw it in front of me. I saw the freedom that we were looking for. And every person was sharing it, and so that word came out.” Sounds like a cool story.

Sweet Sir Galahad is a tune by Joan Baez. Like in other cases at Woodstock, her performance predated the actual recording and release of the song, which first appeared on her 1970 studio album One Day At A Time. BTW, when Baez played it at the festival, it was already past 1:00 am on Saturday, August 16. In order to squeeze the 32 acts into the three days, many artists ended up performing after midnight. As you might imagine, some weren’t exactly happy about it.

Undoubtedly, one of Woodstock’s highlights I’ve seen is Soul Sacrifice by Santana. The band played on Saturday afternoon. Credited to Carlos Santana (guitar), Gregg Rolie (keyboards), David Brown (bass) and Marcus Malone (congas), Soul Sacrifice was included on the band’s eponymous studio debut album, released two weeks after their iconic appearance at the festival. I’ve watched this clip many times, and it continues to give me goosebumps. These guys were lightening up the stage. Live music doesn’t get much better than that. This appearance in and of itself already would have justified Santana’s place in music history. Of course, there was much more to come.

Moving on to Saturday evening brings us to blues rockers Canned Heat and their great tune On The Road Again. Co-credited to the band’s vocalist Alan Wilson, who also played harmonica and guitar, and blues artist Floyd Jones, the track was adapted from earlier blues songs. It first appeared on Canned Heat’s second studio album Boogie With Canned Heat released in January 1968. At Woodstock, it was the band’s closer of their set – what a way to wrap things up!

Next up: Born On The Bayou, one of the killer tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Written by John Fogerty, the song was included on CCR’s sophomore album Bayou Country from January 1969. The band was among the acts performing in the wee wee hours of Sunday morning, August 17. I recall reading that Fogerty wasn’t happy with that time slot, saying the audience was half asleep. That’s why he refused CCR’s inclusion in the 1970 Woodstock documentary, something this band mates felt was a mistake, but John was the undisputed boss. However, footage of CCR is featured in an expanded 40th anniversary edition of the film, which came out in June 2009.

Another highlight of the early hours of Sunday was Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band. Here’s Try (Just A Little Bit Harder), the opener of Joplin’s third studio album I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! from September 1969. The song was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy and Chip Taylor. I don’t feel there was any way Joplin could have tried any harder to sing that song than she did. Similar to Santana, the energy of her performance was through the roof. And all of this after 2:00 am in the morning – whatever substance she was on, it apparently worked!

If I see this correctly (based on Wikipedia), the set with the most songs at Woodstock  belonged to The Who with 22 tracks. They kicked their gig off at 5:00 am on Sunday. Again, what a crazy thought to play at that time! Still, the kids certainly were alright. Here’s We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me, the final track from Tommy, the band’s fourth studio album that appeared in May 1969. Like most tunes on the record, it was written by Pete Townshend.

Apart from Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, perhaps the most iconic performance at Woodstock was With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker, the first act who officially opened the festival’s final day on Sunday afternoon. To me, Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ tune is the best rock cover I know. He truly made it his own. In fact, The Beatles were so impressed with it that they allowed him to cover more of their songs like She Came Into The Bathroom Window. With A Little Help From My Friends was the title track of Cocker’s debut album from May 1969. What an amazing performance!

On to 3:00 am on Monday, August 18 and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. For the most part, including set opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, it was actually David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash only. Neil Young skipped most of the acoustic songs but joined the band during the electric set. Neil being Neil, he also refused to be filmed, feeling it was distracting to both the performers and the audience. Written by Stills, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes was the opening track of CSN’s debut album from May 1969.

A post about Woodstock’s musical highlights wouldn’t be complete without the closing act: Jimi Hendrix. Playing on Monday from 9:00 to 11:00 am, it looks like he had the longest set. Here is his unforgettable rendition of the aforementioned The Star-Spangled Banner. Hendrix effectively used heavy guitar distortion, feedback and sustain to imitate the sounds from rockets and bombs. He truly gave it all he got and collapsed from exhaustion while leaving the stage after his encore Hey Joe.

Woodstock’s original co-creator Michael Lang also helped organize a planned 50th anniversary festival. However, after a series of production issues, venue relocations and artist cancellations, it was canceled on July 31, 2018. A second Woodstock anniversary festival was planned at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, but in February, the Center announced that instead it will focus on “A Season of Song & Celebration” for the entire summer. The anniversary dates coincide with concerts from Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band (Aug 16), Santana with The Doobie Brothers (Aug 17) and John Fogerty with Tedeshi Trucks Band & Grace Potter (Aug 18).

I’ll leave you with a little fun fact: Tickets for Santana with The Doobies start at about $128.00 (including fees). By today’s standards, sadly, this is fairly normal. But, to be clear, these tickets are the cheapest and will only get you the lawn, the area farthest away from the stage. By comparison, tickets for the entire Woodstock festival in 1969, which as noted above included 32 acts, sold for $18.00 in advance and $24.00 at the gate. That’s the equivalent of approximately $123.00 and $164.00 today. Once again, we see the times they are a changin!

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Syracuse.com, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts website, YouTube

Santana Celebrates Africa On Seductive New Studio Album

Deep in the jungle, beyond the reach of greed/You hear the voices of spirits/With their frequency of light/Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night/Communicating with plants, animals and mankind/Affirming the universal truth…All and everything was conceived here in Africa/The cradle of civilization. These words, spoken by Carlos Santana, are the intro to his new album Africa Speaks that was released yesterday. After having listened to it for a couple of times, I’m pretty excited about the infectious grooves and Carlos’ guitar-playing, which continues to amaze me. This record is made for summer!

Appearing on Concord Records, Africa Speaks is Santana’s 25th studio album and his first with producer Rick Rubin. It was recorded together with Santana’s band at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The record also features two female singers with African heritage: Spanish vocalist María Concepción Balboa Buika, who goes by Buika, and on one track British singer Laura Mvula. Santana’s website characterizes the music as inspired by the melodies, sounds and rhythms of Africa, but in many ways, this is a classic Santana album combining Latin Afro-Cuban rhythms with Carlos’ mighty signature guitar sound.

Carlos Santana

In January, Santana told this to Rolling Stone about the upcoming album, which then was supposed to be titled Global Revelation: “I went to Rick to see if he would, as Miles Davis would say, ‘Would you have eyes to do something with me? I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the opener Africa Speaks. The tune has a bit of a mysterious vibe to it. I also like how it builds. And once Santana comes in with his great guitar sound, man, the track just takes off!

Oye Este Mi Canto starts with a smooth laid back Latin jazz feel to it, with Buika shining on vocals. Then check out what happens at around 2 minutes and 28 seconds: Things pick up, with Santana coming in playing a great wah-wah guitar solo. And all for a sudden, it feels like going back 50 years to Woodstock. Then at around 3 minutes and 50 seconds, the song resumes its initial groove – so cool!

Here’s Blue Skies, the track featuring Laura Mvula, who is sharing vocals with Buika. Not sure why Apple Music and YouTube don’t mention her – either an embarrassing oversight or outright disrespectful!

Paraísos Quemados is one of my favorite tunes on the album. I just dig the funky groove and the excellent bassline by Benny Rietveld. As a Hammond fan, I also like what David K. Mathews is doing on the keys. Oh, and did I mention Carlos on guitar?

The last track I’d like to highlight is Breaking Down The Door, which according to a Rolling Stone review is a cover of the Calypso Rose song Abatina, written by Manu Chao. Another nice tune that perhaps is a bit more conventional compared to most other tracks that have more of a fusion feel to it.

This review would be incomplete without acknowledging Santana’s excellent backing band. In addition to the above mentioned bassist and keyboarder Rietveld and Mathews, respectively, the line-up features Carlos’ wife Cindy Blackman Santana (drums),  Tommy Anthony (guitars and vocals), Andy Vargas and Ray Greene (both vocals), as well as percussionists Karl Perazzo and Paoli Mejías.

So what does Rick Rubin think about the album and its making? “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said during a filmed conversation. “Hearing it on record is one thing, but being in the room and watching it happen was another. I couldn’t imagine anyone who loves music sitting in the position I was in watching this not being blown away.”

“Carlos asked to meet and I had never met him before. He said he wanted to go into to the studio and start recording. And I said, ‘well, let’s talk about the songs and let’s listen to songs’ and he said, ‘well, I don’t really have any songs.’ And I said, ‘okay, interesting,’ and he said, ‘well, I have an idea.’ He played me some pieces of music and then he sent me an iPod filled with African music. And he said, ‘live with this for a little bit and then we’ll talk about it.’ I lived with it and it was fantastic!”

“And he said, ‘I think that’s the energy of what I wanna do, and I wanna start by jamming with the band, using these kinds of rhythms and see where it goes.’ Very unusual to work for me in that way. Usually, the song comes first, and the studio is more about documenting the thing we already know how it’s gonna go. In in this case, it was really, we went to the studio completely blank, jamming on these instrumental pieces, and it was really great – really, really great!” You can watch the full clip here.

I have to say this album has reignited my enthusiasm about Carlos Santana and makes me feel like seeing again.  There would definitely be opportunity this year. Later this month, Santana is embarking on a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his 1999 Supernatural studio album. While it definitely resulted in a resurgence of his career, I’m not particularly fond of this record and much prefer his first three albums with the classic Santana band. Santana is also playing two Woodstock-related festivals in August, which I likely can’t afford. But he told People he is planning a series of dates next year to support his new album. Now, that may be something worthwhile looking into.

Sources: Wikipedia, Santana website, Rolling Stone, People, YouTube