Friday, April 27, 2018

Neil Young 56: Roxy and Rainbow

Shortly after recording what would be the Tonight’s The Night album, Neil and the band he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers played a handful of shows at the new Roxy club in West Hollywood. These sets consisted of the nine songs intended for the album, played in order—well, actually eight, since the title track would be played a second time each set as an encore, along with one older song from albums already out, the only song the crowd might recognize.

Sadly, only grainy photographs provide visuals from these performances, wherein Neil’s latest character was bearded, more scraggly than ever, hiding behind shades, wearing a hideous seersucker jacket over a Tinkerbell T-shirt, and constantly welcoming the patrons to “Miami Beach”. Among the equipment onstage were a wooden Indian, a lone palm tree, go-go boots stapled to the side of the piano, and what looks like a high school trophy. The lighting consisted of exactly one bulb.

However, audio bootlegs have existed of these shows, and a compilation approximating an average set was released nearly 45 years after the fact as Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live. We hear the album in its original sequence, but it’s not exactly revelatory, except that a few of the songs run longer and slower. They also sound very close to the album versions, which makes sense since the songs were played twice a night only weeks before during the recording process. So “Mellow My Mind” is just as cracked, and “New Mama” is the acoustic arrangement as opposed to the harder electric approach from earlier in the year. But we do get to hear some of Neil’s warped stage patter, some of which are indexed per style as different “raps”, as well as a brief run through “Roll Out The Barrel”, started by Nils Lofgren on piano with Neil wheezing along on harmonica. Even if the band was gone on tequila and weed, they don’t sound any sloppier than usual, ably keeping up with his drawn-out take on “Tired Eyes”. The only “extra” song included is “Walk On”, predating the official take (which almost made the album) by a couple of months.

Familiarity with the tunes after all this time makes it impossible to imagine what they must have sounded like in the moment. Roxy is recorded well, and a cool historical document, only a year after Harvest had been so smooth and comparatively mellow. It even has a black label design just like Tonight’s The Night had. Its designation as the fifth installment in the Archives Performance Series inspired hope and wonder as to what was being held aside for number four. And, along with Hitchhiker, it gave further hope that Archives Vol. II would even appear in our lifetime.

Five years later, after several volumes documenting shows from the same two-month period pre-Harvest, came one of the more welcome installments in his Official Bootleg Series. Somewhere Under The Rainbow was recorded at the London venue of the same name on a brief tour that took the Roxy band, songs, and vibe to England for a week, then back to the States for another.

The brief was the same: drink a lot of tequila, play the eight Tonight’s The Night songs straight through, then play the title track again, before touching on any material the audience might recognize. That’s pretty much what happens here, along with plenty of references to Miami Beach. The second pass through “Tonight’s The Night” is prefaced by a near-apology, and runs for twelve minutes thanks to an extended monologue about having to fire Bruce Berry for losing a guitar. An acoustic “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong” is well received, as is “Human Highway” in one of its earliest performances. A nine-minute slog through “Helpless” features Nils on accordion and Ben Keith near the end. Neil loses his way not far into “Don’t Be Denied”, which the crowd appreciates nonetheless since it was from the latest album, and “Cowgirl In The Sand” is taken at a slow pace before Ralphie kicks it up to speed.

This is a true bootleg, mastered from the original audience tape because Neil hadn’t bothered to record the show himself. There are some drop-outs, some odd fades, and generally muddy sound overall. It’s a shame it’s not cleaner, but that was the original brief of the Archives—everything, regardless of perceived quality. (That said, just as with other releases in the Official Bootleg Series, this set was edited. The full show, as posted on Neil’s site, featured a lot more talking throughout, particularly during the acoustic portion and when introducing the band, and runs for two hours, a half-hour longer than the CDs.)

Neil Young Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live (2018)—
Neil Young With The Santa Monica Flyers
Somewhere Under The Rainbow (2023)—3

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Who 27: Fillmore East

The term “long-suffering fan” doesn’t usually inspire much sympathy. The artists these people adore don’t owe them anything, and if they’ve shelled out their hard-earned cash on numerous occasions for duplicates or sub-standard material, it’s not like they were forced to. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Or don’t, it’s up to you.

So when a band like the Who, after literally decades of teases, overlooks, and bad editing, comes out with an official version of a classic bootleg that might actually surpass the legend, there is cause for celebration. Live At The Fillmore East 1968 finally presents a nearly-complete document of one of their appearances that year at said venue, in terrific sound, with no dodgy edits, overdubbing, or fly-ins. With the exception of the first two songs from the night apparently beyond salvage, this is the show as performed, with dialogue and mistakes left in.

1968 was something of a lost year for the band; they recorded lots of songs and released a few singles, but a new album evaded them until Pete happened on the idea of a sensory-deprived kid who played pinball. Meanwhile, they played tons of gigs on several continents and became an incredible live act. Their managers, always on the lookout for a gimmick, thought a live album might fill the racks, and so recorded two nights at the Fillmore East.

World events caused a change in schedule; instead of performing two shows a night, they played one long one for each. Inspired by some of the more experimental bands of the time, the Who began to mix their quick, radio-friendly singles with lengthy explorations. “Relax”, a groove from Sell Out, manages to extend to 12 minutes; “A Quick One” goes nearly as long in a version that comes close to the definitive take from later in the year. Amazingly, even for them, “My Generation” runs for 33 minutes, and is assigned to a disc on its own.

They also relied on covers to fill their allotted time. “Summertime Blues” was already in the set, and two more Eddie Cochran tunes (“C’mon Everybody” and “My Way”) lead into “Shakin’ All Over”. This is also the first appearance of their arrangement of “Fortune Teller”, somehow folding into “Tattoo”. It managed to work, and they would still play it that way two years on.

It’s impossible to say how this album would have been received had it been released back then. The beloved original bootleg came from an acetate compiled from both nights, so we don’t get to hear Roger and John sing different verses of “Boris The Spider” simultaneously, nor do we hear Pete telling someone in the crowd to “get stuffed”. But to finally hear complete songs, without fade-outs or fade-ins, is truly exciting. We hoped they’d finally approve the Woodstock performance for its golden anniversary, but no.

The Who Live At The Fillmore East 1968 (2018)—4

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Steve Perry 2: For The Love Of Strange Medicine

Oddly, the glass-shattering voice of Steve Perry stayed silent for years following the last Journey album. When he did emerge, it seemed he’d spent his time growing his hair and singing himself hoarse. For The Love Of Strange Medicine finds him even raspier than on Raised On Radio, working with a bunch of unknown session guys, save the keyboard player from Winger and the bass player from Toto. Just as with his previous solo outing, there are enough Journey elements to keep the true believers invested, and wondering why he couldn’t just get the real guys to do it.

“You Better Wait” was the best choice for first single and opening track, and the best song on the album by far. It sports all the hallmarks people associate with That Voice—flashy lead guitar, piano and synth, layered vocals, pounding drums. From there, “Young Hearts Forever” strains to keep pace, but already sounds dated, and slows down needlessly in the middle. The slow ballad arrives right on time with “I Am”, followed by the theme song for a soundtrack to a movie yet to be filmed, “Stand Up (Before It’s Too Late)”. The title track limps along with some decent hooks, but not a lot of energy, while “Donna Please” attempts to be a heartbreaker a la “Suzanne”.

“Listen To Your Heart” attempts to inject some heavy rock into the proceedings, but somehow ends up jerry-rigging several half-baked ideas together. “Tuesday Heartache” is more heartache-by numbers that takes a strange detour into a Peter Gabriel soundtrack halfway through. “Missing You” is a little clichéd, but it’s a good kind of clichéd, just as “Somewhere There’s Hope” embraces the main ingredients of so-called melodic rock: ¾ time, slamming snares, piano, and yes, a choir. It even goes on about two minutes too long. That only makes the opening of “Anyway” (“I’d like to say I’m sorry/I’d like to make amends”) unintentionally hilarious.

While just a little better than Street Talk, the album underwhelmed, though “You Better Wait” was a mild hit. Fanatics raced to pick up the CD-maxi single, as well as the one for “Missing You”, both of which included songs not on the album. Two of those—“If You Need Me, Call Me” and “One More Time”—appeared as bonus tracks for the head-scratching reissue of For The Love Of Strange Medicine 12 years later (alongside two lesser outtakes and a live “Missing You” from his solo tour). Why these tracks were relegated to B-side status instead of the album itself, where they would have both been more welcome and appreciated, would be a mystery for a few years yet.

Steve Perry For The Love Of Strange Medicine (1994)—
2006 CD reissue: same as 1994, plus 5 extra tracks

Friday, April 13, 2018

Rush 12: Grace Under Pressure

For much of the band’s career to date, producer Terry Brown loomed large, to the same subliminal effect on a record sleeve as a George Martin or an Andrew Loog Oldham. So it was indeed A Big Deal when the next Rush album credited a different name alongside theirs.
Grace Under Pressure arrived at the height of ‘80s silliness, and a glance at the back cover provides proof. Synthesizers were now at the forefront of the mix, alongside guitars that were even further from prog. Hindsight has been kinder to the album than we were at the time, enthralled as we still were with Moving Pictures. The new album seemed almost too slick, too shiny; but again, if this was your high school soundtrack, your reaction would have been different.

To their credit, each of the songs does indeed explore, vividly, the concepts of human stress—not in the egomaniacal Dark Side Of The Moon sense, but more what non-rock stars must endure on a daily basis in so-called modern society. The album starts with a moment of “2112” wind and then “Distant Early Warning” (commencing a worrying trend of not having the title mentioned in the song itself, making it tough to request on the radio) echoes the contemporary nuclear worry prevalent in 1984, yet dares to hint at the notion of a romantic relationship. “Afterimage” goes right to the point, reflecting on a recently deceased friend, and not at all mawkishly; rather, the urgency in the riff conveys anger at what/who was lost. “Red Sector A” is divisive, being as it sports what we’d still call a disco beat, but it’s paired a compelling lyric, evocative of the Holocaust, which Geddy Lee’s parents survived. “The Enemy Within” is said to be part one of the completed “Fear” trilogy, which began two studio albums before, continuing the reggae beat from the second part (and from “Vital Signs”). Each installment is thus less interesting than the last.

A somewhat robotic beat fittingly but annoyingly inaugurates “The Body Electric”, accompanied by percolating bass and more unresolved chords; as with much of the album, the chorus is the best part. “Kid Gloves” has a dizzying, cyclical riff in 5/4 that calms down for the choruses, and reading the lyrics now, they come off as something of a comfort for the confused teen mindset depicted in “Subdivisions”. The edgy “Red Lenses”—listed in lowercase and demonstrative color type in all documentation—is loaded with plays on the word and simple rhymes. Finally, “Between The Wheels” employs a suitably tense synth bed, hints at a chance of perseverance with a driving chorus, but reverts to the tension to reflect the cycle.

It’s not one of our go-to Rush albums, so we’re always surprised how listenable Grace Under Pressure turns out to be whenever we throw it on. Still, it’s a long way from the yowls and sorcery of the previous decade, and does show that while the band may no longer be considered progressive, they have progressed.

Rush Grace Under Pressure (1984)—3

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Paul Westerberg 2: Eventually

Some critics still cared about Paul Westerberg, and his label had Replacements fans working there, so they were willing to bankroll another solo album. Eventually was an apt title, considering that it took a while to complete, starting with Brendan O’Brien (in between multiplatinum Pearl Jam albums) as producer, and finishing with the more indie-minded Lou Giordano.

The music follows the same template as his more recent albums to this point, catchy guitar-driven rock with clever couplets. “These Are The Days” and “Century” would have fit on 14 Songs, but the listener’s ears perk up on the bittersweet “Love Untold”, a terrific song unfairly ignored by most radio programmers. Right on time, the tempo picks up for the hook-laden “Ain’t Got Me” and the relentless trash rock of “Had It With You”, which comes off as a cross between “My Little Problem” and “Backlash”, except there’s no female duet partner. “MamaDaddyDid” returns to a lazier strum, and not very exciting.

Side two (on the cassette, since no vinyl version was released at the time) immediately becomes more interesting with “Hide N Seekin”. It begins like a demo, Westerberg singing over a single quiet electric guitar, pausing for several silent seconds after the chorus, then picking up again, adding a slight organ and brushed drums to the mix. “Once Around The Weekend” is a bit of a retread, but everyone got excited for “Trumpet Clip”, which features good ol’ Tommy Stinson on bass and, yes, trombone while the auteur spits out the lyrics, giggling occasionally. “Angels Walk” is redeemed by some decent guitar rips, but it’s forgotten once “Good Day” takes over, a piano dirge that, but for the lyrical nod to “Hold My Life”, one might not guess is a tribute to the recently departed Bob Stinson. From there, “Time Flies Tomorrow” keeps it quiet and sensitive.

There’s no thrashing on the album, nothing that fans complained had been missing since Don’t Tell A Soul. Yet, Westerberg sounds more confident overall on Eventually, which puts it strongly in the plus column. The whole is definitely greater than the parts.

Paul Westerberg Eventually (1996)—

Friday, April 6, 2018

Genesis 14: Genesis

After touring to support Three Sides Live, and taking a few months off for Phil Collins to push his second solo album, Genesis went right back to work on their next album, and had it out by the end of the year. (Right after Phil finished a brief tour as Robert Plant’s drummer.) Titled simply Genesis, it has since been referred to as the “Mama album”, thanks to the opening track and first single, whereas we immediately recognized the childhood toy depicted on the cover.

“Mama” was a good choice for an introduction to the album, as its harsh sound dragged the band back from the pop sound people had begun to associate with them. (Another good sign: no horn sections anywhere.) That said, “That’s All” is fairly simple, both in execution and lyrics. The next two tracks form a suite that completes the side, just like the old days. “Home By The Sea” takes some time to absorb; apparently the repeated demands to “sit down” come from the ghosts occupying said home. “Second Home By The Sea” is a lazy title, but nicely pairs with its brother, bringing everything full circle in the last minute.

That’s a pretty decent album side, but the execrable “Illegal Alien” is up there with the worst songs the band has ever committed to posterity. At best it’s an accurate Men At Work pastiche, but even they had the taste not to go this politically incorrect. (The video was no help either.) “Taking It All Too Hard” is a little better, back to Phil’s recently patented breakup lyrics. Around our way “Just A Job To Do” was an FM radio staple, a heavier track with good band interplay. One of the sneakier songs in their catalog, “Silver Rainbow” begins with a catalog of paradoxes, then moves into what seems like a cautionary lecture, until you realize he’s talking about the first time making out with a girl (“and a bear comes in the room” being a particularly red herring). Finally, “It’s Gonna Get Better” works around tricky time signatures and finds a suitable melody to deliver its uplifting message.

“Illegal Alien” aside, Genesis remains one of their better albums because the three of them were still playing like a band, contributing equally. We’ll go so far as to say it was their last good album, which says a lot, considering how busy they’d been up to this point.

Genesis Genesis (1983)—

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bruce Springsteen 24: Chapter And Verse

With a glimpse of mortality following the loss of E Street Band members, and even before he started writing his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen opened his legendary vaults to demonstrate the making of certain key albums in his catalog. Some were also accompanied by live artifacts. He’d already started offering downloads of shows from his most recent tour, but the Bruce Springsteen Archives went further back, selling professionally recorded concerts, complete with aesthetically relevant artwork, from his entire career.

It’s a fairly impressive endeavor, having recently escalated to a new release every month or so, and higher concentration on the previous century. Once his book was published, a companion of sorts was also released. Chapter And Verse doesn’t attempt to condense every musical reference in the pages into an 80-minute program, but it does provide something of a chronological overview, even going back before the fame.

His first band is represented by “Baby I”, a worthy garage rock stomp, and an even louder thrash at “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover”. Once he started writing his own songs in the ‘70s, Steel Mill takes over for “He’s Guilty (The Judge Song)”, with a lot of pinched lead guitar and organ; then they evolve into the Bruce Springsteen Band for “Ballad Of Jesse James”, which belies a distinct Van Morrison influence. “Henry Boy” is an awfully busy acoustic demo that predates the first album, and the best parts would form the backbone of “Rosalita” two years down.

“Growin’ Up” is included in the demo version previously heard on Tracks, and from there we go forward with a song per album until this century. The idea seems to be to include the most personally important track from each, and not necessarily the hits. If that’s what you’re looking for, you have other options. This one’s for the diehard fans.

Bruce Springsteen Chapter And Verse (2016)—3