The Venues: Royal Albert Hall

The first reference to the Royal Albert Hall I recall was in A Day in the Life, the magnificent final track of my favorite Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Though at the time I didn’t realize the line Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall referred to the famous U.K. performance venue in London’s South Kensington district. The Royal Albert Hall, which had received a copy of the album prior to its release, did and was less than pleased.

According to this item in the concert hall’s archive, the Hall’s then-chief executive Ernest O’Follipar wrote a letter to Brian Epstein, maintaining the “wrong-headed assumption that there are four thousand holes in our auditorium” threatened to destroy the venue’s business overnight. Not only were the lyrics not changed, but John Lennon wrote back to the Hall, refusing to apologize. The venue retaliated with banning the song from ever being performed there.

Excerpt of letter from Royal Albert Hall CEO Ernest O’Follipar to Beatles manager Brian Epstein

The history of the Hall, which initially was supposed to be named Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, began long before The Beatles. In fact, it dates back to the 1900s and Queen Victoria. It was her majesty who in memory of her husband Prince Albert decided to change the name to the Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences when the building’s foundation stone was laid in 1867. I suppose this makes her a pretty nice girl, though she actually did have a lot to say!

It was also Queen Victoria who opened the Hall in 1871. The building was designed by Captain Francis Fowke and Major-General Henry Y. D. Scott, who were civil engineers of the Royal Engineers. The facility, which today can seat close to 5,300 people, was built by Lucas Brothers, a leading British building construction firm at the time. The design was strongly influenced by ancient amphitheatres, as well as the ideas of German architect Gottfried Semper and his work at the South Kensington Museum.

The Royal Albert Hall has seen performances by world-leading artists from many genres. Since 1941, it has been the main venue for the so-called Proms, an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts. The venue hosts more than 390 shows in its main auditorium each year, including classical concerts, ballet, opera, film screenings with live orchestral accompaniment, sports, awards ceremonies, school and community events, charity performances and banquets and, of course, rock and pop concerts.

This July 2019 story in London daily newspaper Evening Standard, among others, lists the following concerts as part of the “10 iconic musical moments in the venue’s history”: The Great Pop Prom (September 15, 1963), which featured The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the same bill with other groups – only one of a handful of times the two bands performed together in the same show; Bob Dylan (May 26 and 27, 1966); Jimi Hendrix (February 18 and 24, 1969); Pink Floyd (June 26, 1969); The Who and Friends (November 27, 2000); and David Gilmour and David Bowie (May 29, 2006). Obviously, this list isn’t complete!

Let’s get to some music. As oftentimes is the case, it’s tough to find historical concert footage from the ’60s and ’70s, especially when it’s tied to a specific venue. One great clip I came across is this Led Zeppelin performance of Whole Lotta Love from a 1970 gig. Credited to all four members of the band plus Willie Dixon (following a 1985 lawsuit!), the tune was first recorded for the band’s second studio album ingeniously titled Led Zeppelin II, released in October 1969.

Since 2000, Roger Daltrey has been a patron for the Teenage Cancer Trust and raised funds for the group through concerts. The first such show was a big event at the Royal Albert Hall on November 27, 2000. In addition to The Who, it featured Noel Gallagher, Bryan Adams, Paul Weller, Eddie Vedder, Nigel Kennedy and Kelly Jones. The choice of venue was somewhat remarkable, given The Who in 1972 became one of the first bands to be impacted by the Hall’s then instituted ban on rock and pop. Here’s the Pete Townshend penned Bargain, which first appeared on The Who’s fifth studio album Who’s Next that came out in August 1971.

In early May 2005, Cream conducted four amazing reunion shows at the Hall, which were captured and subsequently published in different formats. Here’s White Room, co-written by Jack Bruce with lyrics by poet Pete Brown, and originally recorded for Cream’s third album Wheels of Fire from August 1968. Gosh, they just sounded as great as ever!

The last clip is from the above mentioned show by David Gilmour from May 29, 2006, during which he invited David Bowie on stage. As the Evening Standard noted, not only was it Bowie’s first and only appearance at the Hall, but it also was his last ever public performance. Gilmour and Bowie did Arnold Layne and Comfortably Numb together. Here’s their epic performance of the latter, which was co-written by Gilmour and Roger Waters for Pink Floyd’s eleventh studio album The Wall from November 1979. Interestingly, just like The Who, Pink Floyd was barred from performing at the Hall following their June 1969 gig there. It was the first nail in the coffin for rock and pop concerts at the venue that led to a complete, yet short-lived ban in 1972 because of “hysterical behaviour of a large audience often encouraged by unthinking performers.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Royal Albert Hall website; Evening Standard; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Jontavious Willis/Spectacular Class

I’ve said it before and I say it again. While the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon are gone and Buddy Guy is one of a handful of last men standing from the old guard, the blues is alive and well. It’s particularly encouraging to see young artists embrace it. Perhaps the most compelling example I know is 22-year-old Jontavious Willis. None other than Taj Mahal has called him “Wunderkind.” Recently, he executive-produced the young bluesman’s sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April this year.

In some regards, the story of Willis, who is from Greenville, Ga., mirrors that of other great blues artists. The church and a key event determined his path. According to his website, Willis grew up singing gospel music with his grandfather at a local Baptist house of worship. Then, as a 14-year-old, he saw Muddy Waters on the tube. In the old times, it would have been television, but this is the 21 Century, so it was actually YouTube. Apparently, Willis was instantly hooked and knew that’s the music he wanted to play – I just love these types of stories!

Jontavious Willis and Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal with his Wonderboy, the Wunderkind

I’m not sure how Willis and Taj Mahal found each other. Apparently, Mahal asked Willis to play on stage with him in 2015. Then I guess he became a mentor. “I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta,” said Mahal. “He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more.”

In 2016, Willis released his debut album Blues Metamorphosis. The following year, he opened up select gigs for Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ during their TajMo tour. That’s were I first heard about Willis and actually saw him.  As you can read here, I was really impressed what this young man who performed solo got out of his acoustic guitar. Fast-forward to the presence and Spectacular Class, which by the way is not some overly confident statement by the artist about his music, though it actually is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Instead it refers to a line in one of the songs called Take Me To The Country: …The folks in the country don’t live too fast got good mannerism and spectacular class

Time to get to some of that spectacular music! Here’s the opener Low Down Ways. Don’t you agree this sounds awesome and certainly not like some 22-year-old kid? It does remind me a little bit of Keb’ Mo’, who served as the record’s producer and also plays guitar on several tracks including this one. By the way, all songs on the album were written by Willis.

In the second track Willis asks the question The Blues Is Dead? But he doesn’t waste much time to offer his perspective: …The blues ain’t going nowhere, gonna be here for a great long time/As long as folks got situations and problems on their mind… According to this upbeat review from Rock and Blues Muse, the tune in addition to Willis on lead vocals and slide guitar features Phil Madera on piano and Andrew Alli on harp. Apart from Mo’ (electric guitar), other musicians on the album include Martin Lynds and Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, as well as bassist Eric Ramey – clearly, all top-notch craftsmen!

Daddy’s Dough is a delta blues type of tune that nicely showcases Willis’ abilities on acoustic guitar, with nice harp fill-ins by Alli. Dig the groove on this one!

Next up, the above mentioned Take Me To The Country. This is the type of country blues Willis is oftentimes associated with and another nice example of his acoustic guitar chops – just great! Here’s a nice video showing Willis in action. Check out the great fingerpicking!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer The World Is In A Tangle. Here’s the official video – some killer guitar, banjo and mandolin work on this tune! Sadly, the lyrics capture how I sometimes feel about present day America: The world’s in a tangle it’s time to make a change/I’m gonna move away and change my name/I said the world’s in a tangle what’s going on/I’m going to a foreign land and make it my home

Here’s how Willis describes his sound and approach to the blues: “My instrument sound is simple; my voice is what I put on the forefront. I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story.”

Given Taj Mahal’s important role in Willis’ career thus far, it feels appropriate to quote him again: “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.” High but well-deserved praise from a living blues legend!

Willis is currently on the road in the U.S., with a few gigs overseas in Switzerland, Denmark and Norway scheduled between August 29 and September 7. On some of his dates later this year, he is playing with Keb’ Mo’, e.g., Charlotte, N.C. (Sep 18), Oklahoma City (Sep 22) and Fort Collins, Colo. (Sep 26) – should be an awesome show! The full schedule is here.

Sources: Jontavious Willis website, Rock and Blues Muse, YouTube

Christian’s Fourth of July Rock Playlist

While I never need a reason to listen to great music, I certainly don’t mind the idea to combine it with a special occasion. Today happens to be the Fourth of July, which undoubtedly means many folks will be hanging out with family and friends, eat burgers and other barbecued foods, and watch some fireworks. Perhaps with the exception of the latter, all of these activities are much more fun with music, in my humble and completely unbiased opinion.

Before we get to the enclosed playlist, I wanted to express my hope that all people celebrating Independence Day remember this country was built by immigrants, based on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not hate, division and walls. And that’s all I have to say about that, to borrow a line from one of my all-time favorite motion pictures. Time to get to some music!

How to organize a playlist of random rock tunes I found in my music library? Well, how about alphabetically and kicking if off with some Abba? Just kidding! Here’s AC/DC with It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll. Co-written by Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Bon Scott, the track first appeared as a single in December 1975 and also became the opener to High Voltage, the Aussie rockers’ first internationally released album in April 1976. I suppose many people never looked at bagpipes the same way again. While the visual is a bit blurred, I just couldn’t resist to post the video version of the tune. Fasten your seat belts and let’s go!

What comes after “a”? Well, d’uh, “b”! Though don’t worry, I won’t go through the entire alphabet. But I didn’t want to skip Blue Öyster CultCities On Flame With Rock With Rock And Roll is from their eponymous debut album released in January 1972. I’ve always dug that song, which is credited to Albert Bouchard, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Sandy Pearlman. It also became the band’s first single.

I’m skipping “c” and jump ahead to “d”. It didn’t take long to figure which band to feature: Deep Purple.  I just love these guys and still believe they’re the ultimate hard rock band. And while Highway Star or Smoke On The Water may have been more obvious choices, I felt like going with Speed King, the opener to their fourth studio album Deep Purple In Rock from June 1970. Like all tracks on the record, the tune was credited to all members of the band at the time: Ritchie BlackmoreIan GillanRoger GloverJon Lord and Ian Paice – their best line-up, in my opinion.

Before Gary Moore started to focus on the blues, the Northern Irish guitarist was more of a straight rocker and in this case a hard rocker. Victims Of The Future is the title track of his fourth studio album that came out in December 1983. It was co-written by Moore, Neil Carter, Ian Paice and Neil Murray – and, yep, that’s Deep Purple drummer Ian Paice, which I didn’t know either until I read up on the tune. Once it kicks into high gear at around the one-minute mark, the track literally feels like fireworks going off!

Okay, I thought a rock playlist has to have some Jimi Hendrix. Given the occasion, Star Spangled Banner it is. And since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, here’s Jimi’s legendary rendition from the festival.

Next up is a choice you may find a bit surprising: Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas. In my book, this tune off their fourth studio album Leftoverture from October 1976 features one of the coolest rock guitar riffs I know. Written by Kerry Livgren, the track also became the record’s lead single in November that year.

We’re up to “l” and that means Led Zeppelin. With so many great tunes from this band, the choice was tough. Whole Lotta Love is one hell of a song that includes one of the best Jimmy Page riffs, in my opinion. In addition to all members of the band, the opener to Led Zeppelin II is co-credited to Willie Dixon, since Zep “adapted” parts of Dixon’s 1962 tune You Need Love. Unfortunately, they didn’t give any love to Dixon when the album came out in October 1969. It took a lawsuit and settlement in 1985 to make this happen – not the only example where Zep obviously stole material from other artists. Maybe I’m a bit naive here, but I never got why they engaged in this kind of BS! Proper attribution wouldn’t have diminished them as one of rock’s greatest bands.

Rainbow, the band founded by Ritchie Blackmore in 1975, may not match Deep Purple, but they released some great music, especially during the initial phase with powerhouse lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Following is their best known tune, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, the title track to the band’s third studio album from April 1978. Dio wrote all lyrics on the record, his last with Rainbow. Most of the music including for this song was penned by him and Blackmore.

As somebody who grew up in Germany, I felt I had to acknowledge what’s probably the most successful German rock band internationally: Scorpions. While I acknowledge their music has varied quite a bit over the decades, these guys have released some kickass rock. Here’s Loving You Sunday Morning, the opener to Lovedrive. According to Wikipedia, the band’s sixth studio album from January 1979 “cemented the “Scorpions formula” of hard rock songs combined with melodic ballads.” Lead vocalist Klaus Meine and drummer Herman Rarebell co-wrote the tune’s lyrics, while guitarist Rudolf Schenker came up with the music. Scorpions continue to rock to this day, more than 40 years on, with Meine and Schenker still being part of their line-up – amazing!

We’re up to the tenth and last tune. Let’s finish it with some early Van Halen, when they were still great: Runnin’ With The Devil, off their eponymous studio debut in February 1978. Like most of the record’s tracks, the song is credited to all members of the band at the time:  Eddie Van HalenAlex Van HalenDavid Lee Roth and Michael Anthony.

And that’s a wrap. Hope everybody who is celebrating it has a great Fourth of July. And please be safe and don’t do anything silly, such as drinking and driving!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Peter Frampton Releases Covers Album Featuring His Favorite Blues Classics

Peter Frampton these days seems to get the kind of attention I imagine he hasn’t seen since 1976 when he broke through with Frampton Comes Alive!, one of the most acclaimed live rock albums. Unfortunately, the story has been a mixed bag for the 69-year-old rock guitarist. The good news is his new covers album All Blues, which is out via UMe since yesterday. The not so great side of the story: his recently disclosed diagnosis with inclusion body myositis, a progressive autoimmune disease causing muscle inflammation, weakness and atrophy. Since the condition eventually is likely to prevent Frampton from playing guitar, he decided to do a farewell tour and retire from touring thereafter – and ultimately I guess from music altogether.

But let’s focus on the positive. While by its very nature a covers album doesn’t really present anything new, this is a great collection of classic blues tunes, which nicely displays Frampton’s blues chops. And, btw, he’s a pretty decent vocalist as well. The rock guitarist is getting a little from his friends, including Kim Wilson, Larry Carlton, Sonny Landreth and Steve Morse. All Blues was co-produced by Frampton and Chuck Ainlay, and recorded at Frampton’s studio in Nashville, together with his long-time touring band featuring Adam Lester (guitar, vocals), Rob Arthur (keyboards, guitar, vocals) and Dan Wojciechowski (drums).

Peter Frampton

“I have always loved to play the blues,” Frampton explains on his website. “When we formed Humble Pie, the first material we played together was just that. For the last two summers I had been playing a handful of blues numbers every night on stage with Steve Miller Band. I enjoyed this immensely and it gave me the idea of doing an ‘All Blues’ album live in the studio with my band. We started the resulting sessions nine days after coming off the road last year. Over a two-week period, we recorded 23 tracks, all live in the studio. The energy of these tracks is completely different from building a track one instrument at a time…I’m not sure if you can say we had fun playing the blues. But we definitely did.” With that, let’s get to some it!

Here’s the great opener I Just Want To Make Love To You. Written by Willie Dixon in 1954 and first recorded by Muddy Waters, Frampton’s version features great harmonica playing by Kim Wilson, who is best know as the lead vocalist and frontman of The Fabulous Thunderbirds.

Next up: A nice instrumental take of Georgia On My Mind, which was made famous by Ray Charles in 1960. And while as such the tune is mostly associated with Charles, it was actually co-written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930 and first recorded that year. A few weeks ago when I first learned about the album, I read somewhere that when the song was proposed to Frampton, he saw no way his voice could give it justice. But since he digs the tune, he decided to cover it as an instrumental – great choice, I really like Frampton’s tone here!

All Blues, the title track, is another beautiful instrumental. It features guitarist extraordinaire Larry Carlton, who has played with artists like Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, and has been a member of jazz fusion band The Crusaders. All Blues was written by Miles Davis and first appeared on his 1959 album Kind Of Blue. Again, I love the guitar tone on this cover.The smooth jazzy groove is pretty cool as well!

Next up: The Thrill Is Gone, one of my all-time favorite blues tunes I just couldn’t skip. Co-written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951 and first recorded by Hawkins that same year, it became a signature song and major hit for B.B. King in 1970. The thrill is definitely not gone on this great rendition, which features Louisiana blues guitarist Sonny Landreth.

The final track I’d like to call out is Frampton’s cover of I’m A King Bee. In part I decided to select the 1957 Slim Harpo swamp blues classic since it includes what became a distinct feature of Frampton’s sound in the ’70s – a talk box!

Similar to the great new Santana album I reviewed in the previous post (btw, I can’t remember the last Friday that saw the release of two great albums the same day!),  All Blues on some level makes me feel I should see Frampton during his upcoming tour, especially given it looks like it is going to be the last opportunity. But again, it’s the same old dilemma that I simply can’t see everybody I’d like to see, and I’m probably already going beyond what I should do – unfortunately! And while he’s undoubtedly a great guitarist, I’m not sure I’m enough of a Peter Frampton fan to justify buying a ticket.

Frampton’s farewell tour, which has many dates together Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening (sounds like fun to me as well!), kicks off in Tulsa, Olka. on June 18. It won’t be until Sep 13 before they come to New York City’s Madison Square Garden. I guess this means I have some more time to change my mind! 🙂 The current last scheduled show is Oct 12 in Concord, Calif. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Peter Frampton website, JamBase, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Albert King, B.B. King, Robert Cray et al/Blues Medley

Inspired by this recent post from Music Enthusiast, I’ve been listening to Koko Taylor and originally intended to post a clip of this amazing artist who was also known as The Queen of the Blues. Then I came across the amazing clip above, which apparently was captured at the Grammy Awards in 1987 and shows two back-to-back performances by some of the greatest blues artists on one stage.

Things kick off with Willie Dixon and Taylor singing the Dixon tune When I Make Love. The backing band includes Dr. John, Junior Wells and Ry Cooder, among others. Next up is the Louis Jordan song Let The Good Times Roll, performed by Albert King and B.B. King, together with Big Jay McNeely, Robert Cray and Etta James. The audience is on their feet and McNeely on his back by the end of the track – any doubts you may have had whether the blues is here to stay will be gone after you’ve watched this!

I’ll definitely do something on Taylor soon and also post on some of the other blues pioneers who wrote music that was made popular by others, often white artists.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Rolling Stones Come Full Circle With New Blues Album

“Blue & Lonesome” feels like the Stones took a journey back to the early 1960s and made their best album in more than 20 years.

Yesterday (Dec 2, 2016), The Rolling Stones released their long anticipated blues album, Blue & Lonesome. After having listened to it for a few times, I would say it’s their best music since 1989’s Steel Wheels.

Blue & Lonesome is the band’s first studio album since 2005 when they released A Bigger Bang, and their 23rd British and 25th American studio release overall. It is also their first full-length record that includes covers only. While the Stones started out playing mostly blues covers, even their early albums had at least one song credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Produced by long-time Stones’ producer Don Was, the collection of 12 vintage blues songs was recorded in a London studio in just three days. According to a recent feature in Rolling Stone, the Stones initially went into the studio to work on an album of original songs that is still in its early stages. To warm up they did what they oftentimes do – play blues songs they have loved for many years. Since they knew the tunes so well, they played them (mostly) live and didn’t need to run through many takes. This gives the album a fresh and spontaneous feel.

The Rolling Stones 2016

To me one of the highlights is Jagger’s blues harp playing. I have to say I wasn’t aware how talented he is. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood also provide great guitar work, while drummer Charlie Watts and Darryl Jones,  who after playing bass for more than 20 years still is not an official member of the band, effectively drive the rhythm.

And then there is Eric Clapton, who happened to work on an album at the same study while the Stones were doing their sessions. They invited him to play slide guitar on two songs: Everybody Knows My Good Thing, a tune by Miles Grayson and Lermon Horton, and Willie Dixon’s I Can’t Quit You Baby.

Other contributing musicians include Matt Clifford (keyboards);  Chuck Leavell (keyboards), who was a member of The Allman Brothers Band in the 70s and has frequently recorded and toured with the Stones since 1981; and long-time session drummer Jim Keltner who worked with John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Hiatt and Ry Cooder, among others, and plays percussion on Hoo Doo Blues (Otis Hicks & Jerry West).

Following are a few clips of tunes on the album.

Just Your Fool (Walter Jacobs)

Blue and Lonesome (Walter Jacobs)

Everybody Knows My Good Thing (featuring Eric Clapton) (Miles Grayson and Lermon Horton)

Ride ‘Em On Down (Eddie Taylor Jr.)

I think what Richards said about Jagger’s harmonica playing and the album overall in the above mentioned Rolling Stone feature sums it up perfectly. “This is the best record Mick Jagger has ever made…It was just watching the guy enjoying what he really can do better than anybody else. And also, the band ain’t too shabby.”

This post was updated on August 4, 2020.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube