Clips & Pix: Brandi Carlile/The Joke

Boy am I out of touch when it comes to music by contemporary artists! I just listened to an episode of the NPR program All Songs Considered called “The Year In Music 2017.” For close to 1.5 hours, the hosts cheerfully discussed new music released during 2017 by artists I had never heard of for the most part. Most of the music wasn’t my cup of tea, but the track above by Brandi Carlile really blew me away. It once again illustrates you ignore contemporary artists at your own risk!

According to Wikipedia, Carlile is an American folk rock and Americana singer-songwriter, who released her eponymous debut album in 2005. In the meantime, she’s put out four additional records and has a new one scheduled for February 2018, which is called By The Way, I Forgive You. The above track The Joke is from the new album and was released as a single last month. This incredibly powerful tune encourages me to further explore this artist.

Sources: Wikipedia, Brandi Carlile website, YouTube

 

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Decade Blows Stone Pony Away With Music Of Neil Young

Tribute band’s recreation of Young rock and acoustic classics is labor of love

Decade impressed me right away when I saw them for the first time at Rock the Farm Festival in Seaside Heights, N.J. in September (see related post here). I also caught them again just one week later at the Colts Neck Rockfest 2017 in Colts Neck, N.J. On both occasions, these guys did an incredible job in recreating the music of Neil Young. With tight sets, they focused on some of Young’s best known rock songs. Last night, the band was also able to include a great acoustic set as the headliner at The Stone Pony, the storied live music venue in Asbury Park, N.J.

At Colts Neck Rockfest, I had a chance chat with the band’s lead vocalist John Hathaway, who has been playing Young’s music for the last 30 years. He truly knows the ins and outs of Young’s guitar work, has a very similar voice, and even somewhat resembles his idol. Hathaway told me about the scheduled Stone Pony gig and was clearly excited. Frankly, being the headliner at a venue where the likes of Southside Johnny, Little Steven and Bruce Springsteen played in their early days is pretty cool! Oh, and according to its website, The Stone Pony has also attracted many other famous artists over its 40-plus-year history, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Ramones, Blue Öyster Cult and Gregg Allman.

Decade at Stone Pony Poster

Back to Decade. In addition to Hathaway (middle), the band’s current line-up includes Joey Herr (lead and rhythm guitar, backing vocals; far left), Lou Perillo (bass, backing vocals; second from left), Steve Cunniff (keyboards, backing vocals; second from right) and Johnny Burke (drums, percussion; far right). All of these guys are clearly veteran musicians and do an outstanding job backing Hathaway. Having played myself in a band many moons ago, I believe I can confidently say that!

In addition to performing many of Young’s best known songs, Decade played some deep cuts most of which I didn’t know myself. Among the rockers were Like A Hurricane, The Loner, Cinnamon Girl, as well as the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classics Woodstock and Ohio. Some of acoustic gems included Sugar Mountain, After The Gold Rush, The Needle And The Damage Done and Harvest Moon. I have to say I’ve always loved the acoustic side of Young, oftentimes even more than his rock anthems. Decade also threw in a great tribute to Tom Petty, Listen To Her Heart. I’m still somewhat in disbelief he’s gone!

Since smartphone videos oftentimes come out with mediocre quality, I didn’t try to capture any live footage. Luckily, I found a few clips from Decade on YouTube. I hope there will be more soon, including some of their excellent acoustic renditions.

Cowgirl In The Sand

Written by Young, Cowgirl In The Sand first appeared on his second studio album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, released in May 1969. The tune is also featured on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s first live album 4 Way Street, which appeared in April 1971.

Cortez The Killer

Cortez The Killer, which was written by Young, initially appeared on Zuma, his 1975 album with Crazy Horse. The tune is also included on Young’s 1977 compilation album Decade, which presumably inspired the band’s name. Last night, Hathaway told the audience it was Burke who came up with it before he actually became the band’s drummer.

Ohio

A Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic, Ohio initially was released as a single in June 1970. Written by Young, the tune was also included on the band’s 4 Way Street live album as well as on the Decade compilation record. BTW, the clip was recorded at the above mentioned Rock the Farm festival.

Woodstock

Woodstock was the lead single from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s iconic second studio album Déjà Vu from March 1970. The song was written by Joni Mitchell, who included it on her third studio record Ladies Of The Canyon, which appeared around the same time as Déjà Vu. Apparently, the clip was captured during a previous performance of Decade at The Stone Pony earlier this year.

According to Decade’s website, they can next be seen at the Walt Street Pub Bar and Restaurant in Red Bank, N.J. on November 4, December 9 and January 19.

I’d like to finish this post with a couple of quotes from Hathaway, which are on the band’s Facebook page. Commenting on Young, he notes, “He’s the reason I learned to play…It’s what I was born to do [laughs].” Having seen him three times now, I believe it!

“The guitar work and vocals have to be dead on or we will be dismissed as just another bunch of hacks…We’re re-creating album recordings. We’re not kidding around here. Anything less would be a disservice to the fans coming to see us. I want people to leave thinking they just saw the best thing next to Neil Young in person.” It’s a high standard, but Decade truly lives up to it.

Sources: Wikipedia, Decade Facebook page and website, The Stony Pony website, YouTube

 

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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Curtis Mayfield/Curtis

Curtis Mayfield’s first solo album was a departure from most of 60s pop-oriented soul with more edgy sounds and lyrics, a direction that would also be embraced by other black artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

By the time Curtis Mayfield released his first solo album Curtis in Sep 1970, he already had established himself as a successful music artist for more than 10 years, especially as leader of the pop soul and R&B band The Impressions.  But while songs like People Get Ready and Keep on Pushing had started to introduce lyrics with a social message, Mayfield felt what was generally expected of The Impressions did not sufficiently allow him to express himself, both musically and lyrically.

Curtis Side A

Right from the get-go with (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re Going to Go, Mayfield makes it crystal clear he has left behind the days of For Your Precious Love, Gypsy Woman and It’s All Right. For the record, I think all three songs are beautifully executed doo-wop soul. The point is they are very different from the music on Curtis. Perhaps an excerpt from Don’t Worry illustrates it best:

Everybody smoke/Use the pill and the dope/Educated fools/From uneducated schools/Pimping people is the rule/Polluted water in the pool/And Nixon talking ’bout, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/But they don’t know/There can be no show/And if there’s hell below/We’re all gonna go.

This is pretty heavy stuff. It’s also rather eerie how relevant these lyrics remain in present-day America, more than 45 years after they were written! Like much of the other music on the album, the song doesn’t have a catchy hook line but instead is fueled by a grove dominated by congas, funky guitars, jazz and orchestral parts.

Curtis Side B

The standout on the album, both musically and lyrically, is Move On Up, which remains one of the greatest funk-soul songs to this day. The fantastic horn intro and the conga-driven beat, along with Mayfield’s mesmerizing silky falsetto, is simply irresistible. Unlike the dark lyrics of the album’s other songs, Mayfield conveys a more upbeat message, saying there is hope after all for people if they work hard and persist. Again, an excerpt illustrates it best:

Take nothing less, than the second best/Do not obey, you must keep your say/You can pass the test/Just move on up, to a greater day/With just a little faith/If you put your mind to it you can surely do it.

While Curtis performed well upon its release, hitting no. 1 on the Billboard Black Albums and no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Albums charts, it got mixed reviews from music critics some of whom simply didn’t get what Mayfield was doing. Wendell John wrote in Rolling Stone, “Lyrically, his songs are a lot more rhyme than reason…The arrangements are all pretty uninspired, a little bit halfhearted – maybe largely because there’s so little melodic meat to most of the tunes.”

The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau at first wasn’t particularly impressed either but later reassessed his views: “Initially I distrusted these putatively middlebrow guides to black pride–“Miss Black America” indeed. But a lot of black people found them estimable, so I listened some more, and I’m glad…What did surprise me was that the whole project seemed less and less middlebrow as I got to know it.” Oh, well…

Bruce Eder from AllMusic said Curtis “was practically the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album of 70s soul, helping with its content and success to open the whole genre to much bigger, richer musical canvases than artists had previously worked with.”

Finally, let the music speak. Here’s a clip of Mayfield performing Move On Up live.  While playing the horn parts on keyboards isn’t as good as the real instruments, even without the horns, the song and Mayfield’s voice shine. And, by the way, what a killer band!

Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau Consumer Guide Reviews, YouTube

John Mayer Is Back With Reflective New Album

After three and a half years, singer-songwriter John Mayer has released a new full-length album, reflecting on love, life and getting older.

After two EPs each consisting of four songs from his new album, John Mayer has released the entire record. The Search for Everything is the seventh full-length studio album of the singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer, and his most personal and reflective work to date.

Mayer clearly put a lot of ambition in the album, reportedly spending hundreds of hours in the studio. “This is the longest I have gone in the incubation of a record,” he told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything I’ve done before, and I wanted to stoke the fire of abstraction and just start punching hard.”

John Mayer

The 12-track set kicks off with Still Feel Like Your Man, a soulful ballad with a soft, laid-back, funky guitar feel. Other tunes with a similar groove include Helpless and Moving On and Getting Over. Helpless also nicely showcases Mayer’s great abilities on electric solo guitar, as does Changing.

Love on the Weekend, the first single released last Nov, is perhaps the album’s most catchy tune. While in this regard it doesn’t quite reach previous songs, such as Daughters, Waiting on the World to Change or Say, it proves Mayer still knows how to write hit songs. Love on the Weekend charted within the Billboard Hot 100 at no. 53 and climbed to no. 5 on the Hot Rock Songs chart.

On two of the songs Mayer has some great help on background vocals. The above mentioned Helpless features Tiffany Palmer, who according to her bio has also worked with artists like Bette Midler, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige. In addition, she has written for Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle. And then there is none other than Cheryl Crow, who provides background vocals on In the Blood.

john_mayer 2

Overall, The Search for Everything is a pretty solid album. Mayer’s guitar-playing is superb. A review in Entertainment Weekly noted it’s reminiscent of “the most reeled-in work of Eric Clapton’s solo career.” Perhaps one drawback is that all of the songs are slow or mid-tempo, which does make listening to the album a bit monotonous after a while. Throwing in a couple of uptempo tunes here and there could have mixed things up, even covers of blues rockers, which is a genre in which Mayer absolutely excels. On the other hand, I get this would have thrown off the album’s overall focus on personal reflection.

Further commenting on the album, Mayer told USA Today it’s about “getting older and comparing my track to other people’s. Part of me is a quote-unquote ‘rock star’ and part of me is this kid from Fairfield, Conn., who really wasn’t made for this. That part looks around at the other parts and goes, ‘Is any of this OK? Am I alright doing this?'”

All tracks on The Search for Everything were written by Mayer. He also produced the album, together with Chad Franscoviac and Steve Jordan (executive producer), with whom he has frequently worked in the past. Mayer is currently on the road to support the record with an extensive tour that mostly focuses on the U.S., with a few gigs in Canada and one show in London, UK.  The tour is scheduled to conclude in Noblesville, Ind. on Sep 2.

Here’s a clip of Helpless from a recent live performance in Albany, N.Y.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, USA Today, Tiffany Palmer web site, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: John Mayer

While I grudgingly agree with a recent Wall Street Journal story that the end of the rock & roll age has started, great young contemporary artists like John Mayer give me hope that not all may be lost.

Yesterday, I found myself listening to The Search for Everything: Wave Two. It’s the second batch of songs from John Mayer’s upcoming seventh studio album. Essentially, he has been releasing the new material as EPs since January, though the next release reportedly is going to be the entire record rather than Wave Three. The Search for Everything is slated to come out April 14.

After I had enjoyed the four songs from Wave Two, I decided to pull up my John Mayer playlist in iTunes. It includes material from all of his previous six studio releases, his excellent 2008 live album Where the Light Is, as well as his cool version of rock & roll classic Route 66 from the soundtrack of the 2006 animated motion picture Cars.

As I started listening through the playlist, I was reminded what a talented singer-songwriter Mayer is. Plus, the fact Eric Clapton repeatedly invited you to perform at his Crossroads Guitar Festivals, which in addition to “Slowhand” featured giants like Buddy Guy, B.B. KingJeff Beck and Carlos Santana,  it’s a good indication you must be a pretty decent guitarist as well. Mayer participated in four of the five festivals in 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013.

Mayer started his recording career as a 21-year-old with the EP Inside Out, which appeared in Sep 1999. He has since become a pretty prolific recording artist with five additional EPs, six studio records and seven live albums. His discography also includes three compilation and two video albums. And, as if his solo work didn’t keep him busy enough, Mayer also formed a blues rock band in 2005, the John Mayer Trio, together with two of the finest studio musicians: bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan.

So what is it about John Mayer? To start with, he has a great ear for catchy melodies. There is also something very soothing about his voice, which becomes particularly apparent in quieter, acoustic-oriented tunes. Great examples are Love Soon from his first EP and Daughters from Mayor’s second studio album Heavier Things. Released in September 2003, the album debuted at no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, and the tune song won “Song of the Year” at the 2005 Grammy Awards.

While Mayer wrote many great songs, the standout to me is Waiting on the World to Change. From the soul grove to the lyrics, this masterpiece could have been written and performed by none other than the great Marvin Gaye. I could see it on Gaye’s 1971 gem What’s Going On. Appearing on Mayer’s 2006 third studio release Continuum, Waiting on the World to Change reached the top spot of the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 2007 Grammys.

And then there is of course Mayer’s love for the blues. It doesn’t hurt he is also a gifted electric blues guitarist. One very cool example is his cover version of the Ray Charles tune I Don’t Need No Doctor from the above mentioned live album Where the Light Is. The sound of what must be a Fender Stratocaster and even his voice remind me of Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my absolute favorite electric blues guitarists. While I do like Mayer’s more pop-oriented music, I actually wouldn’t mind, if he would focus more on the blues going forward.

The blues is an appropriate transition back to that Wall Street Journal story, which by the way is great though somewhat depressing read. Yes, I’m afraid the reporter is right: the end of the rock era as we’ve known it has begun. Defining artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are in their seventies or not far from it – not to mention all the giants we’ve lost over the past couple of years, the latest being Mr. Rock & Roll himself, Chuck Berry.

While it is impossible for John Mayer to replace the above rock & roll giants, as long as there are young and talented music artists like him who deliver true craftsmanship, I’m carefully optimistic there is a future for great music. Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of Waiting on the World to Change.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Wall Street Journal, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Carole King: Tapestry

From the first to the last note Tapestry beautifully shines, truly making it a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

Carole King’s Tapestry set a new standard in the singer-songwriter category. The benchmark has yet to be surpassed, almost 46 years after the album’s release in February 1971.

Apart from its great music, I will always connect Tapestry with the time in the mid-70s when I started to get into music. My sister had the record and was playing it all the time. Recently, I got a vinyl copy of this gem as well. I had owned it on CD for many years, but nothing beats the vinyl experience!

While Tapestry brought Carole King on the map as a solo artist, at the time of its release she already had been a successful songwriter for other artists for more than a decade. Together with her lyricist and first husband Gerry Goffin, Carole had written a number of major hits during the 60s, such as The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and, not to forget, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).

But back to Tapestry, which was Carole’s second studio release. Her debut, Writer, did not receive much initial attention, though that changed when Tapestry became popular. It’s one of those rare albums where I almost find it impossible to point out obvious highlights – each of its 12 tunes is simply outstanding, making it worthwhile to listen from the first song to the last song.

The opener I Feel The Earth Move is one of only a few up-tempo tunes on the album with a dose of rock and blues. Another great song in this category is Smackwater Jack. It is also one of three tunes from the 60s Goffin-King songwriting era. The other two are the beautiful ballads Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and Natural Woman.

If I would have to choose my favorite from Tapestry, it would be You’ve Got A Friend, both musically and in terms of its exceptionally beautiful lyrics. It is one of various tunes featuring James Taylor, who also recorded his own version, which became one of his signature songs.

Another tune I’m particularly fond of is Way Over Yonder. In addition to great lyrics, Carole’s singing and piano-playing are outstanding. But what’s really giving me the goose bumps is the background vocal (Merry Clayton) and the tenor sax solo (Curtis Amy).

Speaking of additional musicians, Tapestry features numerous of them, though most of the songs are dominated by Carole’s powerful voice and piano. Additional instrumentation is oftentimes in the background, especially for the ballads, which gives the songs great dynamic. Some of the fantastic musicians include Danny Kootch (acoustic and electric guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Charles Larkey (bass), Carol’s second husband at the time. Oh, and there is Joni Mitchell, who shares background vocals with James Taylor on Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Tapestry has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, including more than 10 million in the U.S., making it one of the most successful albums of all time. It is No. 36 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Here is a great clip of You’ve Got A Friend with just Carole and her piano – that’s all you need!