Summer 2016 Concert Round Up-Janes Dead Guns Bad Beatles Sabbath Ween n’ More…Around the World in Eighty Daze.

“My magnificent octopus” – S. Baldrick

As the Zombies almost once said, summers are the time of the season for concerts. From sheds to stadiums, folks pile into their vehicles to head out road trippin’ and space truckin’ for some full on outdoor Dionysian rituals. Some choose to make the parking lot their tailgating blow out (occasionally failing to even enter the show), others wait patiently in line to get into the venue early to drop $40 bucks on a shirt and absorb multiple beers at $11 a whack. But the gamut of summer concert behavior makes up one of the best seasons to see rock n roll in person– outside and under the stars. This summer was no exception. Below is a chronicle of the Carwreck adventures on the road from June to August this year.

   June 9-Joe Walsh and Bad Company

Joe Walsh and Bad Company, opening night for the summer season. I’d almost given this one a miss, even though I had tix in hand already. It was a weeknight, I was beyond tired. At the last second though I jumped in the car and flew to Great Woods (sorry, corporate logos change so quickly at these joints that we need to stick with the real names: The Meadows in Hartford, Worcester Centrum, Providence Civic Center, Boston Garden, Great Woods etc, who can keep track of which joint is the Xfinity Center anymore? And by next year it’ll be something different, you can TD bank on that). Aptly named the One Hell of a Night tour, this was one of the best shows of the summer. Going in, my expectations were low, but was I in for an eye opener. Joe Walsh is a pretty funny guy. If you’ve never heard him talk, you’d swear he was blasted out of his mind (which he was from the sixties until 1994)  Here is a pretty good example of him, courtesy of David Letterman in the late 1980’s:

Joe was in fine form at this show, introducing Life’s Been Good with the slurred quote “If I’da known I’d be playin’ this song for the rest of my life, I’da written a better song. But this is what we got, we’re stuck with it,  so let’s make the best of it…”. Long term band mate Joe Vitale gave the outfit a 70’s era Barnstorm feel. Walsh’s unit opened the show but easily could have headlined-Walsh’s distinct guitar lines warping reality like the James Gang used to.

Next up was Bad Company. Often thought of as the poor man’s Led Zeppelin, they were crisp on a pared down stage, serious and powerful. With Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from the original band (bassist Boz Burrell passed away in 2006 and guitarist Mick Ralphs declined to do this US tour due to health reasons) they were fleshed out by long term second guitar Howard Leese of Heart fame and a temporary stint from Chris Robinson from the Black Crowes. Lean and mean, Paul Rodgers stalked the stage as the band delivered some of their tightest playing of their career. Notes I took at the show included the question “How the fuck can Paul Rodgers still be this good?” How the fuck indeed-Rodgers had started to really tear up venues with Free in 1969, and 47 years later hadn’t lost a step. I’d seen Robert Plant a few times over the last few years, and Roger Daltrey a dozen or so times in the last decade. Both are still vocal legends, but neither could hold a candle to what Paul Rodgers can still pull off in 2016. Hard to believe, but Paul Rodgers is the last man standing, the most powerful 70’s era vocalist in rock n roll today. Had there been a roof, Bad Co.would have blown it off.

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Yep, still got it

July 15 Fenway Park-Dead and Company

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Is that really made from a tablecloth?

Next up was Dead and Company. I had seen them in 2015 early in their tour and was decidedly underwhelmed, as noted here.

I’d been wary of this band since the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary last show ever ‘we swear we are done’ in Chicago was quickly followed by a fall tour announcement with Oteil replacing Phil Lesh, and John Mayer as ‘Jerry’. I wasn’t the only long term Deadhead to be a bit skeptical of a cash grab, as brilliantly portrayed here.

I was dragged nearly kicking and screaming to the show and protested heavily that I didn’t really want to go. But an outdoor show at Fenway seemed like it could overcome John Mayer being the focus of attention in the Dead, but still had very low hopes of them being close to good. . But like Fonzie once famously said, I was wrrrrowrrr..

I thought Dead and Company were a pale imitation of the real thing, and that there was no way they could even come close to the Grateful Dead’s power.(I was wrong). The band started out the night with a jam that took a while to lead into Jack Straw. Jams to start a show? This was new. Donna Godchaux, a polarizing vocalist from the Grateful Dead from 1972-1978 showed up for a rare appearance, and brought a decent mid 70’s vibe to the setlist that drew heavily on her era of studio work. The first set finished with Help On the Way->Slipknot->Franklin’s Tower, something usually held out as a second set centerpiece. I wondered if this was going to be a long single set show and we had strayed into the second half. Nope. Second set started with St. Stephen->Dark Star. This was a mind bending way to begin a set. Combine that with the follow up of TerrapinStation/Drums/Space/Terrapin/Morning Dew–this  would have sizzled synapses and popped craniums had it been played in the 80’s or 90’s, leaving many Deadheads quite different people than they are today. But make no mistake-this sounded VERY much like classic Grateful Dead of the late 80’s early 90’s. Mayer popped a couple of song choices over Bob Weir’s strummed introductions to something different. Mayer overruled Weir? Twice? What was going on? With a Casey Jones that sped up each successive pass through the chorus, the Dead finished with a lighting fast version that sounded like they’d been injected with some of Heisenberg’s finest blue.(read up on Phil Lesh allegedly inventing cocaine suppositories for the band in the 80’s so they didn’t have to stop to blow lines in between songs when you get a chance).  Weir in particular threw Mayer slightly worried glances as they sped up to a tempo never heard before in any era of the Dead canon. As they approached light speed, Weir and the drummers eyes bulged at the exertion and looked as if all three might pass away right in front of us while Mayer hopped up and down gleefully strumming full speed.

A rare double encore to finish what has been said to be the best show this unit has ever played? Sublime. Though never a Donna fan, her addition combined with some pretty inspired playing from Mayer made this so close to the Dead that I have fooled several knowledgeable people playing them the soundboard from this show. (highly recommended for purchase while you can). Oteil deserves a mention for finally figuring out how to get genuine dinosaur-like Phil Lesh bass  runs pounding underneath. Great show, and I’d go again in a heartbeat. These guys are becoming musically dangerous on stage, and though it pains me to say this,  John Mayer might consider dropping his career to do this full time.

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July 17 Fenway Park-Paul McCartney

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             Uh oh,  I see a drunk guy headed for the stage

Found some cheap tickets to McCartney on StubHub and jumped in the car once again. I’d seen the giants of the 60’s bands: Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cream, the Animals, Traffic…but never seen an actual Beatle.  Once again the rockers on their 50th or more anniversary tour fill up the stadiums. McCartney looked ageless (he’s actually 75), and has overcome some vocal problems that have plagued his recent tours to deliver a 38 song set that covered his whole career. The show started with a surprise for Sir Paul. Everyone had a card under their seat with instructions. Which resulted in this:

Crowd members held up cards welcoming Paul McCartney to Fenway Park Sunday.

From the opener Hard Day’s Night the band was off and running. Pretty much every Beatles song you’d ever want to hear combined with some excellent Wings era material made for a show that seemed short even though it pushed nearly three hours. Tributes to George Martin and George Harrison and stories about meeting a Russian defense minister who told him that his first album was an illegal  Beatles album, and that the Beatles had nicked For the Benefit of Mr. Kite off a Victorian era circus poster nearly word for word made McCartney seem very reachable and real. Another highlight was Bob Weir-still in town from his two day stint with the Dead at Fenway the previous night- coming onstage to join McCartney for Hi Hi Hi (of course).

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We’re gonna get high high high…

Then during Helter Skelter, with Weir still on guitar, the stage was charged by a drunken Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots. As he mugged for the audience, Weir gave him a look like he wished Gronk would spontaneously burst into flames and burn to a crisp onstage. It would be nice if someone could emulate the Seinfeld episode where he goes to a heckler’s job to screw with them. A rocker should show up at a Pats game and start yelling signals at Gronk behind him to see if he’d get the point. Doubtful. Even hard core Pats fans were pretty dismayed at his embarrassing drunken roofie worthy stunt (He is likely immune to roofies though):

Other highlights were the fireworks laden Live and Let Die (the first of two I’d see this week) and a peek at the earliest work of McCartney and (mostly)Lennon-In Spite of All the Danger from the 1957 era pre-Beatles, the Quarrymen. A real cool night that ended with a blast.

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Live and Let Live? Live and Let Die!
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Green Monster with the real score

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July 21-Jane’s Addiction, Dinosaur Jr, Living Colour

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In a tent on the waterfront of Boston Harbor two days later, this triple threat of 90’s heavyweights lit up the night. I’d been a fan of Living Colour since day one-my Vernon Reid fan-dom even tracing back to his stint in jazzer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s highly demanding Decoding Society in 1984. Always hard to pin down, what exactly is their sound? Funk, jazz, metal and pop synthesize seamlessly into a literally unique sound. Hitting the stage early, the seats were only about 20% filled. But no matter, vocalist Corey Glover (sans Bodyglove wetsuit) played it like it was a full stadium. The band has become even tighter in the last twenty years-Vernon Reid crackling on guitar like a rampant electrical storm, Doug Wimbish moving air with devilishy complex bass runs, and the spectacular Will Calhoun pounding out poly-rhythms that made Dinosaur’s drummer Murph comment backstage: “he’s a monster!”. Not bad praise coming from a drum legend himself. During their major hit, Cult of Personality, Corey ventured deep into the crowd-running down empty rows back and forth until he settled directly behind me to sing the final notes “per-sunnnn-al-it-teeee!” all about a foot from me. Holy living fuck! I’d been lucky enough to have backstage passes for this one, and quickly shuttled to the backstage area. Jane’s Addiction were holed up with tattooed, pierced and needle scarred mini skirted hangers on, but both Living Colour and Dinosaur Jr were hanging in an outdoors area backstage entertaining the handful of hangers on. (this was a home game for Massachusetts based Dinosaur Jr). Living Colour stayed in the main open area backstage to chat with fans and take photos. I had a long conversation with Vernon Reid, reminding him that I’d seen him play at Newport Jazz Festival opening for Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck in 1984. Took a bit for him to remember until a mention of the minuscule statured pianist Michael Petrucciani jogged his memory. He stayed and chatted for about a half hour, very affable and generous with his time. This set was one of the highest energy sets of the summer, with Vernon Reid spitting molten notes out on top of the most ferocious rhythm section I’ve seen all year. Breathtaking shit, really. I said to Vernon that they should be headling this bill. “you gonna have to talk to somebody else ’bout that I’m afraid…” was his wry observation.

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Dinosaur Jr came out pumping with Lung from their 1987 second album, and didn’t let off the gas pedal until the final notes of Just Like Heaven, a Cure cover also from their second album. Start Choppin’ from 1993’s  Where You Been got people up out of their seats and jumping around until the end of the set. I’d seen them several times over the years, and in 2016 the band is a well oiled machine. Murph’s drumming syncs with Lou Barlow’s bass to give a perfect platform for J Mascis’s unique wall of sound country inflected punk rock assault. Dinosaur Jr can be volume monsters in a smaller venue, but open air can tend to absorb much of this power. (As an aside, I’d seen J play in a Stooges tribute band recently, and his raw Les Paul through a Marshall was the best sound and soloing I’d ever heard from him in the twenty odd years I’ve seen them. ps-he was deafeningly loud. )

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Headliners Jane’s Addiction were what the crowd came for though. I’d seen them on the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991, but hadn’t seen any of the reunion shows until 2011. A sober-ish Perry Farrel (peripheral ya know) held down the madness, and guitarist Dave Navarro was a whirlwind of motion, spitting out blistering solos that simultaneously ripped large holes into songs and melodically stitched them back together again by the end of a run. Maybe the five years of touring has taken a little lustre off the silver spoon, but this show wasn’t quite as energized as the 2011 and 2013 tours. (in 2013 I witnessed Navarro nearly punch out his guitar tech right on stage when his acoustic guitar kept failing during Jane Says). Still, a so so Janes Addiction show is much better than 95% of the bands out there. 2013’s vintage stag films were replaced this year by something definitely more chilling. Girls hung and swung from the lighting rig like they had in the past. But when you looked closer, you could see they were fetish style hung from meathooks through their skin. You heard that right. I saw them backstage before the show, and they exuded a….ummmm….different vibe. A video below captures the painful action from the front row. (not for the squeamish)

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Overall it was an amazing triple bill. Living Colour, although on the undercard billing, took the night hands down. The nineties, updated and backdated-and fully syncopated. All three of the bands are headliners in their own right.

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July 22-Guns n Roses/Lenny Kravitz- Foxboro

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The next night it was in the car once again and off to Gillette Stadium, home of the Patriots. Labeled the Not in This Lifetime Tour ( a reference to an interview Axl had done recently when asked about the chances of a reunion of the original lineup), this was an unexpected event. I definitely didn’t expect any sort of reunion of the original line up, especially Slash. (Technically, without main songwriter Izzy Stradlin or founding drummer Steven Adler, this isn’t the original line up). Knowing their proclivities for legendary train wrecks on tour, I waited to buy a ticket until the last minute, not convinced that this uneasy detente between Axl and Slash would actually hold. A reunion of Slash and Axl was certain to bring people out of  the woodwork, yet would they make it far enough through the tour to get here? Witness Axl breaking his foot on opening night and doing several full shows sitting in a huge throne. (Dave Grohl’s super throne actually). I had my doubts.

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Axl unexpectedly finds himself on the throne of the Seven Kingdoms

Fans scooped up the overpriced tickets quickly, perhaps too quickly. But the promoters made a large miscalculation in booking two nights in Boston and tickets on Stubhub plummeted in price. 75 dollar tickets slipped to 17 bucks a pop. When coming through the turnstile, I was directed towards another ticketing area for a “free mandatory upgrade”. Choices were simple: “Do you want floor seats or lower bowl 100 level loge seats?” My 24 dollar Stubhub ticket for a 64 dollar face value ‘cheap seat’ in the nosebleeds was now a 104 dollar loge seat. The upper bowl 300 level was roped off and empty. Half of the stadiums’ 200 level was likewise roped off, and the 100 level loge was only about 80% full. Someone took a large financial bath on this particular show. Although Billboard reported a 92% of capacity ticket sale for Foxboro, the numbers they reported don’t add up, as they used a 35,000 capacity figure for a stadium with a listed 69,000 seat concert capacity. This show didn’t have more than 25,000 people scattered thoughout the bowl and floor. (More GnR lies?)

Its about the music, not the money. Right?

Opener Lenny Kravitz kicked off the evening in style. I’d thought it an odd pairing until I found out that Slash and Kravitz had gone to high school together, and he had jammed together with GnR in 1992. A seven song set seemed short, but nobody was here for Lenny.

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One question many people had was ‘Will they go on before midnight?’ as Axl was notorious for coming onstage literally hours after showtime. There must have been a strongly worded clause in their contract involving forfeiting pay, because the band came onstage before 8:30 pm. Axl looked good, no longer the beanpole, sinuously serpentine, but also not the beer inflated parody he had begun to turn in to. (in comparison, Slash is starting to increasingly resemble Howard Stern circa 1995). He kept a leather cowboy hat on over his omnipresent bandana (to cover the bald spots). Strong in voice, he had definitely worked to get his end of things solid. It’s So Easy kicked off the night, and three of the first four songs included Mr. Brownstone and Welcome to the Jungle. Wedged in there early was Chinese Democracy from their latest incarnation, and Slash must have wondered why the fuck he was doing playing on something he not only hadn’t written, but actively  disapproved of. He wandered a bit aimlessly during this song. Further Chinese Democracy material combined with some questionable tracks from the Use Your Illusion albums to bog the proceedings down.But though this unit may not be a ‘real’ band, they are nothing but professional. Slash, resplendent in a ‘Mickey Mouse boning Minnie Mouse doggie style’ shirt kept mostly to himself. In fact, the stage was so huge, Slash and Axl could have actually not violated a restraining order and still played the show on the same stage they stayed so far away from each other all night.

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Mickey and Minnie bonding
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Axl  and Slash in separate zip codes yet on same stage

There were some unexpected highlights. An instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and a cover of the Who’s the Seeker were a couple of ‘out of left field’ moments. Live and Let Die (my second in four days) has never lived up to McCartney’s version, but was still a highlight. My largest shock was a surprisingly fleshed out version of November Rain. Axl tapped timidly on the piano (Elton John is in no danger here) while the band rose up in a powerful crescendo. I was amazed that this fairly weak song was transformed into perhaps the highlight of the evening.

The grand finale, Paradise City brought everyone back to life as the whole end of the stadium literally exploded.(Axl either intentionally or accidentally sang over Slash’s iconic guitar solo introduction here. Puzzling)  We were ushered out into the wild before 11:15, a time usually reserved for their coming ON to the stage. In retrospect, though this was a nearly three hour show, it did illustrate the fact that this band doesn’t really have the material to sustain a show of this length. Sometimes less is actually more. But the band did defy predictions of imminent implosion and make it through the tour successfully without any fights onstage, prolonged hissy fits, three hour delays or crowd members being attacked by Axl  (hello St. Louis). I wasn’t blown away, but was very glad I went.

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Long stick goes boom

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August 21st  Ween Philadelphia

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Well, this one wasn’t a home game by any stretch of the imagination, but it was for Ween. But a Ween reunion isn’t something one needs to split hairs about. If they are playing and you can physically drive there in a reasonable less than six hours time? Go.

Ween had been off the road for a while. Gener’s meltdown in Vancouver in January 2011 signaled that-if not the end of the band, a long hiatus was needed.

The power of the Boognish is strong though, and when Ween announced three shows in Colorado for February, the tribe gathered once more. (Personally I’d wished they’d opened that run with Bumblebee part 2, but What Deaner Was Talking About Made a similar point)

A 90+ song setlist for the three days there showed zero repeats of a single tune, a difficult feat. But they had announced very few shows. Were these it? Soon we knew there would be a three night run in New York City at Terminal 5 in April 2016. They were impressive there, delivering another 100 songs over three nights. Spot dates were announced here and there for the summer, and the whole tour seemed very tentative, likely depending on how Gener’s new found sobriety held up. The idea of seeing them on the waterfront under the stars in Philadelphia was definitely appealing. So once more out on the road. What was less appealing was a forecast for torrential rains, 100% guaranteed. Somehow upon arrival, the sky cleared, and though the venue was a bit of a mudfest in spots, the rains abated for the whole evening.

Under a bridge downtown…

A setlist that delved heavily into Chocolate and Cheese (they had to play Freedom of 76 in Philadelphia, right?) combined with deeper cuts (the Thin Lizzy-ish Gabrielle) to make an incomparable 31 song set. Buenos Tardes Amigos closed out the evening in a large group sing a long. Seeing Ween in their home state? Pretty amazing experience.

Foolishly I decided to give their Boston show two nights later a miss. Deaner ended up posting online (something he doesn’t usually do) that the Boston show was the best one of the 2016 reunion and was one of the top 25 Ween shows ever. Fuck. A listen to readily available bootlegs of the show confirm they were pretty off the hook that night. I’d heard more recently that Lockn Festival crowds were questioning why Ween was on the bill, which makes one wonder about the state of jam band audiences these days, and a quick read of the comments on the Lockn forum shows some pretty calcified brains flickering towards flat lining. Sorry folks, there’s life beyond Phish (who actually love Ween). Or, as someone posted “I’m sorry, Umphrey’s fans opinions just don’t really count”. These people haven’t been even exposed to Frank Zappa or the Mothers of Invention, never mind the Tubes or 10cc or Sparks (all precursors of Ween’s ability to jump genres and parody social culture), so there’s a learning curve of musical literacy out there that many  have missed. I could go on a soapbox rant on the increasingly limited musical awareness populating the twenty somethings in the festival scene, but lets move onward to something far heavier…

August 25 Black Sabbath-Great Woods

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Four days after Ween, the concert-mobile trekked out once again. Back to the venue where this whole summer started, 80 days and a weighty daze later we’ve come full circle back to Great Woods.

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Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends?

Black Sabbath has declared this to be the final time on the road. With Tony Iommi battling lymphoma at age 66, the end of the ride has been more forced upon the band than any internal band decisions. I’d seen Sabbath twice on the “13” tour in 2013, and although the word uneven comes to mind, many of the strengths that made this band a legend already forty five years ago were still on display. That album hearkened (with obvious intention) back to the glory days of Master of Reality and Volume 4, and the new material in concert wasn’t half bad (even prompting Ozzy to say ‘hey I’m starting to LIKE that one”). Constant ice water baths over his head kept him conscious. He reminded me of grandpa at Thanksgiving  finding out there’s only one beer left in the fridge  as he scurried shuffling across the stage. This year the baths were minimal, and Ozzy seemed far more energetic and in better voice. (On the 2013 tour he was frequently out of key by the final two songs Dirty Women and Children of the Grave) With this the final tour, there was no time for newer material-it was full on retrospective time. Black Sabbath, Fairies Wear Boots, After Forever and Into the Void opened the show. I had received a coupon for $16 lawn seats for this show and grabbed em up. Deciding to keep on the  move and remain directly behind the arena seats, I had a great view of the whole show (and from every angle to boot). Here’s the start (cribbed from Omaha):

Iommi seemed to have lost a step or two in his trademark brittle cascading solos, but what the hell, he almost expired last year. Ozzy’s inexplicable improvement compensated for this small trifle nicely. Geezer Butler remains the thundering ball of rumbling bass energy that he has been for 47 years in the band. Former Ted Nugent and Rob Zombie drummer Tommy Clufetos held down the rhythm seat. His overly histrionic drum solos tend to detract from the overall feel, but I do understand that this band needs a dependable workhorse to let Butler and Iommi lay their magic on top of. I personally would love Bill Ward’s free flowing improvs underneath, but as Ozzy said: “I’m not going to be responsible for killing one of my best friends by making him tour!”

This is Your Captain Speaking, Your Captain Is Dead

There were a couple of shows I intentionally missed this summer. The first was Yes. They were continuing their album showcase. This time it was Drama and half of Tales From Topographic Oceans. Here’s where I had a problem: Drama was a vehicle for Chris Squire primarily in the wake of vocalist Jon Anderson’s departure in 1980. But with Chris Squire’s untimely death, Billy Sherwood stepped in and donned the long coat to give the impression that Squire’s ghost might still be flickering around. It isn’t. Another large part of that album is Alan White, who has dropped off the tour with a bad back. So let’s take attendance: Jon Anderson? No. Chris Squire? No. Rick Wakeman? No. Alan White? No. Steve Howe? Yes, the last one standing. With Tales From Topographic Oceans being such a creation of Jon Anderson collaborating with Steve Howe, and Ritual in particular being a vehicle for Squire’s legendary bass solo, I’d have to agree with the  many reviewers who have said that the band should have postponed the tour until Alan White healed up. Although people said it was a fun night, it is getting perilously close to being a tribute band. I didn’t want to tamper with the decades of awe inspiring Yes shows programmed in my brain with a severely diluted version. Squire is just too integral to not only the band, but these two albums in particular.

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Find the real Yes member in this photo

While on the topic of tribute bands, I also declined tickets to go see Kiss. Now this is a band that has crossed the line from rock n roll, to an actual stage play being put on with actors playing the part of Kiss. Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer don Peter Criss and Ace Frehley’s make up each night and pretend to be them. Sure, the Dead have John Mayer in as ‘Jerry’, but they don’t strap a pillow around his gut and slap a fake beard on him, do they? Sure it’s entertainment, but let’s be real-it’s a choreographed show with rehearsed dialogue, not a rock band anymore

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Don’t tell me this isn’t the real Ace and Peter

In conclusion, this was quite a parade of talent on view, and a highly recommended summer diversion. Get out there, highway star….

Cats on the bandstand, give ’em each a big hand
Anyone who sweats like that must be all right
No one wants sometimes, no black eye
Just another cat beneath the stars tonight

Cats down under the stars
Cats down under the stars

Final tally-Eleven bands, seven shows, five venues, 225 dollars total in tickets, 1585 miles traveled.

Mirabile Dictu: Hawkwind Rises From The Ashes and Delivers The Goods

Hawkwind- The Machine Stops (2016) Cherry Red

I will admit it, I had Hawkwind written off. For most long term fans of Hawkwind, the band has been on life support for over 15 years. It’s not as if there wasn’t plenty of evidence. Folks started to wonder what was up as drum machines and sequencers took control of the band. Albums began to have a push button feel to them, and fans had started to abandon ship around the time Alan Davey left circa 1997’s Distant Horizons. This album had ushered in the ‘techno era’ for Hawkwind, and ripping guitars, washes of jet engine level white noise and howling vocals were being replaced by drum machines, polite sequenced synthesizers and a pattern of endless parade of pleasant remakes of their classic tunes, mostly inferior to the originals. Recent clunkers didn’t add to confidence that the ship would stop taking on water.

With that in mind,  any new Hawkwind album needs to be graded on a sliding scale. 2010’s Blood of the Earth suffered from an overt absence of Dave Brock, the sole surviving member, and the heart of the band. His vocals and guitar work were essential cogs that made the Hawkship fly so successfully. His handing over the reins of the band to a revolving door of some less inspired associates made for a frustrating and disappointing experience. The follow up, 2013’s Onward, fell even further down the rungs of the ladder-no memorable tunes at all, and padded out with remakes of their own former classics. Ennui and malaise were now the watchwords, and the outlook for the future looked grim.

All of which makes 2016’s The Machine Stops, their 26th studio album such a welcome surprise. When one enters with zero expectations, even a modest level of success is noteworthy. But make no mistake, this album exceeds any modest expectations. Echoes of their underrated 80’s work-Church of Hawkwind, Levitation and Choose Your Masques-flow through this concept album (loosely based on E. M. Forster’s prescient 1909 short story of the same name-a post apocalyptic underground world controlled by machines). Church of Hawkwind is the best reference point, a 1982 album revered by Hawk-heads and generally unknown in their catalog. It has long been considered one of the last of the ‘classic’ Hawk albums, heavy on the synths and thick with a creepy and trippy dystopian vibe. The Machine Stops follows a similar bent: spoken word pieces as intro and outro, synth instrumentals that segue songs seamlessly, genuine rockers interspersed with more dreamy takes. It would appear that this is the first Hawkwind album in decades without a remake of a former classic, but hard core Hawkfans may notice that the song Tube is lifted from the introduction of Choose Your Masques’ Dream Worker, while others may notice musical and lyrical themes from other past songs weaving their way through.

Keeping in mind that Hawkwind has been mostly a functioning band since 1969, it is beyond startling that 47 years later, they could still pull some magic out of their hats and dazzle us. Long term fans and newcomers will resonate with this record, as it plays into Hawkwind’s strengths. Concept album? Check. Large dystopian theme running through the whole thing? Check. Creepy atmospheric interludes? Check. And a big reason for this album’s success is Brock stepping up once more to grab control of his own band, and inject some of his magical energy that has been lacking in the last 20 years. When people say this is one of their best albums in a while, they are spot on. (One review states it is the best since 1975’s Warrior on the Edge of Time, a bit of misguided hyperbolic praise). But this is definitely the most satisfying and complete work since 1992’s Electric Teepee (or some others have pointed towards 1995’s Alien 4 as their last really satisfying and complete album). Either way, it has been over 20 years since a Hawkwind album that really gets you excited and makes you want to play it again immediately has been released. Hawkwind releases used to be cause for celebration, make you want to take the day off from work or school and just—you know-get into it, get out of it, get into it.  Blood of the Earth I played a few times and haven’t revisited in six years. Onward? I actually sold it after two plays knowing I’d never listen to it again. Hawkwind’s recent output was starting to tarnish the unique power and beauty of their 1969-1992 era of near perfection.

Their recent attempts at sticking their toes into the prog rock pool also didn’t sit right. Prog bands are known for their chops and tricky compositional skills, this was never Hawkwind’s vibe. Hawkwind was always about the SOUND. They always had taken a punk rock approach, long before punk existed. “Plug a bunch of things in, wail away, and let’s see what happens” has always been their approach, and nobody in the history of the band would claim virtuoso status in any era of their existence. This is what made Hawkwind stand out from the crowd, in a field crowded by anorak prog geeks wielding moogs, Hawkwind were the Neanderthals armed with technology who co-opted the fancy gear and created a glorious primal electronic caterwauling, a maelstrom of sound that could pluck your consciousness from your shaking body and take it to new dimensions, something ELP and their ilk could never do. Attempting to enter territory they weren’t well equipped for wasn’t playing to their strengths, and their recent work showed it.  Only 2012’s Hawkwind Light Orchestra’s Stellar Variations avoided this trap, stripped to a trio of Brock, Chadwick and Hone.

Is this album perfect? No. Although it does not fare as well in comparison to their groundbreaking 1970-1977 period, and can suffer from time to time from overly generic synthesizer work, it should quickly grab the attention of any Hawkwind fans who would consider themselves a bit disaffected in the millennium. Overall, this album has an elegiac feel to it. Under the guises of following the storyline, the third to last (and best) song on the album, the infectious Solitary Man sounds as if Dave Brock is finally letting the long term fan peek behind the curtain into his private life for both a quick glimpse and large statement, and has pinned an appropriate title to let you know.  For as the song says,  Dave has always been a Solitary Man, single-handedly guiding the starship Hawkwind through the Cosmos, surrounded by friends, but alone with his thoughts. If this is the last Hawkwind album ever, it is a solid final statement, and they have done us proud. Highly recommended for Hawkwind fans both old and new.

Madonna-Ray of Light Carwreck Archives #5 May 1998

This is another off the wall review from VMag, May 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Five of a look at the Carwreck Archives. These pieces were written for VMag, a music and arts magazine from the late 1990’s until the early 2000’s. Home to some pretty amazing writers, all under the patient watch of editor Murphy, one of the best of the best. Some reviews were quick hits, some were downright strange.

After getting hired for faxing the magazine a single sentence, Murphy asked for another review for the May 1998 issue to go with the Ani Difranco one I’d submitted. This one ended up as the lead review for that issue. It’s truly amazing that  this record still stands up pretty well today, 18 years later. 

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Madonna -Ray of Light (Maverick/WB)

Once upon a time, there was a little blonde girl who fell down a rabbit hole. At the bottom of the hole was a room full of mirrors, and every mirror that the little girl looked into had a different reflection. Identities swirled around her as she pirouetted in the center of the room, finally stopping in front of one. ‘Goodness me’ she exclaimed, regarding herself in the mirror, “…a techno princess!”

Madonna’s long route to 1998 has been fraught with a multiple array of personalities both divergent and occasionally embarrassing.  The common denominator to these changes is her glomming on to the latest fad, thereby appearing current and hip.

The electronica boom, and the ensuing crossover success of Bjork and Portishead in this field has not escaped the constantly scanning eye of Madonna. Attempting at first to enlist Prodigy (of  Smack My Bitch Up fame) to produce her new record (who politely declined with a terse ‘Fuck off’), her searchlights descended upon William Orbit, whose techno resume was sufficiently solid enough to inject a smidgen of credibility into this project.

The result, however derivative, is fairly successful. The key to judging any Madonna release is the question: “Would you really ever listen to this  outside of a dance club?” That most people’s answer will be ‘yes’ is  going to puzzle a lot of folks. I hate to use the words ‘Madonna’ and ‘maturity’ in the same sentence, but the new post-techno format elicits a strikingly reflective and thoughtful side to her that most would think never existed.

The opening cut, ‘Substitute For Love‘, strikes a brooding mood immediately–awash in the thick echoes of midrange and muted breakbeats so currently in vogue in the Bjork and Portishead camps, it’s a strangely heartfelt meditation, bordering on –dare I say?—SPIRITUALITY. A spiritually dreamy trance-like state permeates the album. Indo-trance pop influence bubble under the techno veneer, most evident in the piece ‘Shanti Ashtangi’. This song (and much of the album) is strongly reminiscent of the pioneer of the trance pop genre, Sheila Chandra and Monsoon. Spiritual influences dart in and out of songs-oops, there she goes again, apologizing for being shallow and self-centered for the last fifteen years. (Nothing Really Matters)

Although Ray of Light is fairly strong all the way through (the exuberant title track and the quirky ‘Skin‘ in particular), the musical reference points on the album are symptomatic of the problem in Madonna’s recent work. Her innovative strengths seem to have faded into the background, and her talents have shifted to successfully latching on to others and adapting their work to her own ends. Sometimes the result is disastrous (Bedtime Stories, I’m Breathless), but this time Madonna-with William Orbit–has crafted a highly listenable, laid back journey through the current looking glass.

Ani Difranco-Little Plastic Castle May 1998 Carwreck Archives #4

This is another off the wall review from VMag, May 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Four of a look at the Carwreck Archives. These pieces were written for VMag, a music and arts magazine from the late 1990’s until the early 2000’s. Home to some pretty amazing writers, all under the patient watch of editor Murphy, one of the best of the best. Some reviews were quick hits, some were downright strange.

This review was my first one for VMag. I had been working at a record store and was in contact with the magazine through their ad rep who came through often. I faxed over to them a single sentence, the opening line to this review. Within 5 minutes, the store fax machine lit up, and this message spat out:

“You’re hired. Finish the review. Call me.”

Working at a store within spitting distance of Smith College, some of the concerns noted were a possibility (my previous record store had Smithies and their compatriots superglue the locks shut for selling CDs that ‘exploited women’).   In retrospect, it is kind of amazing to get hired on the basis of a single sentence. Like I said above, Murphy’s instincts were razor sharp.

 

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Ani Difranco-Little Plastic Castle (Righteous Babe)

Truly a phenomenon, Ani Difranco has the same effect on young women of unfixed gender preference that Adolf Hitler had on Germans of the 1930’s: blind obedience, unswerving loyalty, and a belief in the messianic. With that in mind, it is very difficult to fairly appraise her work without fear of lynching at the hands of PC-addled brickbat wielding fem-bots.

This record is certainly going to be looked at as a watermark: a clear divider between the old and the new. This will be the record that finally alienates the coffeehouse Ani crowd and introduces her to the REAL WORLD. Her older fans will always pick this record out as the one that killed ‘the scene’ and wistfully recount alternate lyrics she sang on the Puddle Diver tour, while wiping away a tear.

Newer fans, unaware of the near Deadhead-like behavior of the older crowd, will latch onto this one like an infant confronted with its first sugar donut. References to fledgling lesbian experiences will delight the last brace of fans unaware of her persistent avowed heterosexuality. Her songstress skills are still evident in enough quantity to keep the older fans from completely abandoning ship, but lyrically she veers perilously close to self-parody–a theme hinted at by the album artwork.

An appearance by the avant-garde trumpeter John Hassell and former Peter Gabriel drummer Jerry Marotta lend a breadth of musicality to this album that shows an artist striving to break the cumbersome shackles of preconceptions that she’s been saddled with. For some though, these changes will mark the end of an era and the expiration of some special secret.

Yes-Open Your Eyes: Carwreck Archives #3 August 1998

This is another off the wall review from VMag, August 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Three of a look at the Carwreck Archives. These pieces were written for VMag, a music and arts magazine from the late 1990’s until the early 2000’s. Home to some pretty amazing writers, all under the patient watch of editor Murphy, one of the best of the best. Some reviews were quick hits, some were downright strange. The following is one of the latter. Murphy published this untouched in the pre Columbine world,  only commenting dryly “So you didn’t like it?”.

Yes-Open Your Eyes (Beyond/Tommy Boy) 1998

Zack skated around the corner of his street, the dread in his heart increasing. He knew, of course, that his parents would be home. His mom was kinda straight, but his dad….uh….well, his friends thought they were OK but Zack knew they were so, well–friggin’ goofy.  His dad reviewed records for the Springfield paper, and regarded himself as damn hip. If it wasn’t bad enough that Zack had to absorb eternal grief for his skateboarding, they’d also made him get rid of all his piercings.

Now his old man was censoring what he would bring home to listen to. Ever since he’d seen his dad snap the Fugazi and Life of Agony discs in half right in front of him, Zack had settled on a compromise plan. CD’s would be smuggled into the house inside innocuous looking jewel cased covers.

He entered the front  door quietly. -“Oh Christ there he is…”

Zack’s dad looked up from an ancient issue of Crawdaddy.  “What ya got there, sport?” he asked,  noticing  the CD’s in in Zack’s hand. He peered into the darkness of the doorway to see….

“Hmmm, YES, Open Your Eyes and the Symphonic Pink Floyd? That Billy Sherwood certainly has revitalized Yes, hasn’t he? I mean, I had my doubts during the Buggles era, but now, whew! Four stars next Sunday, y’know? Dad said to no one in particular as Zack quickly exited toward his room.

Sliding the deadbolt shut, Zack tossed the Yes and Floyd onto his dresser, on top of the Pearl Jam-Yield and Dave Matthews- Live empty cases. Opening his five CD changer, he carefully loaded the new Hatebreed and Snapcase into the machine, and donned his headphones. “They should be happy I’m not a metalhead anymore” he intoned to the empty room.

Zack absently picked at the shrinking scab on his arm, until a dark crimson globe appeared, shining at the corner. Zack regarded the reflection of the light in the growing orb, and chuckled to himself.

“Yup, it’s decided, tomorrow’s the day…”   He glanced around his room at the Queen, No Doubt and Bush posters his dad had bought him.

“….tomorrow, I finally will kill both of them.”

-Carwreck deBangs,  August 1998

 

 

The Definitive Stooges Album Finally Came Out And No One Noticed? -Have Some Fun: Live at Ungano’s

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The Stooges are a tricky proposition on vinyl. Depending on who you talk to, they only have either two or three releases (four with Metallic K.O. for the really hardcore) The purists point to the 1969 Elektra debut and the 1970 follow up Fun House as being the holy grail of Stooges lore, the only recordings featuring the original band of Iggy Pop, brothers Scott and Ron Asheton (drums and guitar) and Dave Alexander (bass). A band that horrified Elektra Records label staff, John Cale their producer and pretty much anyone else who came into earshot. Known for a stripped down proto punk rock sound-virtuosos these guys were most definitely not. (you could make a strong case for the Stooges being the first actual punk band).  Early shows leaned on an avant-garde bent: Scott pounding away on amplified oil drum percussion, vacuum cleaners and appliances whirring into microphones, all of this creating a pre-industrial music sonic cacophony. (Sadly, this stage of their career is the least documented by any recordings). In the days of flower power, this band was distinctly anti-hippie in look and vibe.

  

Their first album made few inroads as they were viewed by their label as the little cousins of the other more well known Detroit band, the political heavyweights MC5.  The Doors-esque album cover of their debut highlights Iggy’s nascent snarl, both in photo and in sound. John Cale of Velvet Underground fame did all he could to tame these wild beasts from Detroit, and managed to capture their grim outlook in what could be termed a palatable style. (original recording sessions had the Stooges turning the amps up to aircraft landing volume and letting fly. When a horrified Cale explained that in the studio, things had to be less raucous and more controlled, the band just shrugged and said “That’s how we play”. Cale eventually acquiesced and made the necessary adjustments to the dials in the red). The label was unenthused by their new signing, but the infectious enthusiasm of Danny Fields, Elektra’s ‘in house hippie’ and publicist responsible for getting the Doors into the national spotlight kept the dollars flowing and the second album began to take shape. Funhouse, released in 1970, was an attempt to re-create the sonic maelstrom of their early days. Left mostly to their  own devices in the studio, the band recorded what many consider their definitive album, culminating in the cacophonous LA Blues, a five minute free form explosion of sound that is akin to a recording of a riot in progress, all accompanied by wailing saxophone courtesy of prospective new band member, Steve Mackay. Overall, the maelstrom of sound the Stooges reveled in had been somewhat captured into the grooves. The public, however, was not enthralled. The burgeoning heroin habits of most of the band, the addition of the divisive James Williamson, the sacking of Alexander and the lack of record sales led to the early demise of the Stooges Mark 1. It seemed over.

 

When Iggy met David Bowie at the end of 1971, it was decided to give the band one more try, this time on Columbia Records with Bowie as the producer. Raw Power, recorded in 1972 is looked upon today as a punk rock masterpiece, but back then it was only mildly more successful than its predecessors-almost cracking the top 50 in America (likely due to Bowie’s involvement). Metallic K.O., a lo-fi recording of the last Stooges show ever in 1974, and released in 1976 as almost an afterthought,  brought an end to the main releases of the band. Oddly this last release was their largest selling album to date.

Which brings us to Live at Ungano’s. You can really be forgiven for missing this release, a lost 1970 NYC recording that had circulated for a while as a bootleg cassette. Starting with the difficult Metallic K.O. in ’76, the last twenty years are replete with Stooges releases of dubious origin. Most releases are light on source information like dates and places,  and light on quality has been the benchmark for, let’s see: eleven live albums and six compilations in the last twenty years. Genuine Stooges fans got scarred again and again  by sub par bootleg quality recordings being foisted upon the public as ‘new found gems’ and ‘rare complete concert!’. Some beautiful packaging surrounds some of the most diabolical sounding recordings you could ever imagine being put to vinyl (or CD). Some releases literally were taken from those old school tape recorders your parents used to play with-size of a school book with push buttons on one end. Something along the lines of this:

Stooges high tech bootlegging device, circa 1970

Anyone who has ever owned one of these remembers the murky recordings they provided-internal microphones seemingly wrapped in flannel, an inability to record any conversation that could be translated back into English, and prone to distorting heavily when any loud sounds came anywhere near it. Perfect to record one of the loudest bands in rock n roll!

I initially dismissed Ungano’s as likely did many others as just another one of the plethora of shoddy bootlegs designed to look pretty and drain cash from the unsuspecting public. It wasn’t until one day I turned it over and noticed the Elektra Records logo on the back I began to suspect this was something different. Elektra PR wizard Danny Fields had set up a reel to reel deck (fairly high end sound recording unit) at the back of the club, and the band ran through all seven of their tunes from their upcoming release- Funhouse. Shambling, chaotic, out of control, out of tune-this is a glimpse of the Stooges like they saw themselves. A dose of raw power accompanied by a smack in the head as delivered by a line up never heard on recording before. The Asheton brothers guitar and drums keep Iggy glued, while newcomer (and former roadie) Zeke Zettner replaces the founder Dave Alexander on bass (Dave said: “I got everything I need at home with my mom: food, clean clothes, a bed, my record collection and my instruments. Why would I leave?”)  and Bill Cheatham on second guitar give them a rare two guitar attack. The sound is what you would have actually experienced in the club on that long ago August 1970 evening. Glasses clink, folks yell at each other, Iggy interacts-a genuine window into an event that Stooges fans have been seeking for decades. Mackay joins the fray halfway through TV Eye, and nearly hijacks the whole set in two songs. The real treat here is the jam Have Some Fun/My Dream Is Dead, a multi faceted meltdown powered again by Steve Mackay, blowing his brains out in a rock version of Coltrane’s recent salvo approach to saxophone. The final song is the window into the other –Albert Ayler was skronking jazz saxophone squawks into the pop world in 1970, and the other side of the river or lake heard the call and squawked right back.   Far from the cacophony of Funhouse’s L.A. Blues, this is another animal completely.  Proto Stooge songs, improv vocals, solid jazz riffing, free form poetry and full on atonal free form improvs all melt into perhaps the single best encapsulation of this band ever recorded.  Like some proto-fusion jazz rock  NRG experiment, this nearly 11 minute jam shows that the Stooges were no slouches musically or conceptually–when they chose to be.  I was dumbfounded that this record had languished until five years ago in the can. They finally had released a Stooges concert from their peak era, and one sounding like you might actually have been there, and actually have gotten IT. One thing that Iggy would agree with-the Stooges were a live band far more than a studio band.  If there is one slab of Stooges I’d play to someone new to the band, I’d be hard pressed to choose between this and Funhouse to convey the volcanic power and volatility of this sound.

In conclusion, it’s no surprise this gem passed under most people’s noses. This isn’t a perfect sounding LP, but it is pretty damn good. The first thing to disappear on a cheap bootleg are the drums and bass, but here they are articulated nicely, once the house sound guy got a good EQ on the sound. (The tape also suffers from some phasing in the first five minutes of the show, but this sign of aging quickly disappears.)  No club in 1970 had perfect sound, but overall this is the best sounding Stooges live recording out there. This is a highly authentic and faithful recording of what the Stooges actually sounded like in a small club with an imperfect sound system and some dodgy microphones. If you want a record that sounds EXACTLY like the Stooges would have sounded in a small club in 1970, this is your ticket. Turn down the lights, light up a pack of cigarettes and leave them around the room, and turn this sucker up as loud as your stereo goes. Close your eyes, and….you are there, a head twisting experience unlike any other band in 1970.  That my friends, is a definitive Stooges album. Sem-in-al.

Sifting Through the Wreckage of 2016: Blows Against the Empire

Is rock n roll dying? Not rock stars, who seem to be lining up for lethal injections with great regularity lately, but rock n roll. I look at my living room floor. It is littered with Bowie, Motorhead, Mott the Hoople and Paul Kantner albums. Each new week brings another deletion from the rock n roll Hall of Famous.  The detritus of the mighty beast of rock n roll lays scattered like the rubble of a childhood’s end.  The recent deaths of David Bowie, Lemmy, Dale Griffin, and Paul Kantner (hey Glen Frey too) in two months is a very large hit for the rock community to take.(and now in the four weeks since this was written-Keith Emerson offed himself and Prince has checked out too)  But it got me wondering about the state of rock of late. All of these platters on the rug came out over thirty five years ago (Bowie’s Blackstar being the lone exception). Turn on the radio-you hear about the same 100 songs: Bad Company, Boston, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, the Who, the Doors, Bob Seger, Elton John, the Yardbirds, Dire Straits, the Cars…..the list goes on. What do all these guys have in common? They were active and put albums out in the 1964-1979 fifteen year patch. In fact, almost every important album in rock came out between 1967 and 1977. Could it be that rock actually died, and we didn’t notice?

When the Beatles rewrote rock music history in the 1964 season, things really started to change. Groups played their own music for the first time. No longer were acts a couple of frontmen that used different back up bands at every venue, they were a full functioning self contained unit-bass, drums and guitar were now in house. Blues purist groups sprouted first, with the Rolling Stones being the best known aficionados of the new Brit craze, along with Alexis Korner and Graham Bond. The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton began their slow blues inflected ride.  Mod groups popped up in the end of 1964 in the UK, with the High Numbers leading the charge into their next phase renamed as the Who. By 1965, America and the UK were teeming with rock bands of every stripe. Rhythm and Blues, pop, blues, nascent drug music, poetry bands..things started to diverge. With the introduction of LSD to England in late 1965, everything there changed. The budding post beatnik scene in San Francisco launched another center of LSD influenced music. Everyone from the Beatles on down turned on and tuned in. Take a look at what 1965 yielded: the Rolling Stones  spat our an eyepopping five releases, including the groundbreaking Out of Our Heads; The Beatles four releases were topped by the awe inspiring Rubber Soul and the chart inspiring Help!-the Byrds, the Who, the Kinks, Van Morrison (Them), the Moody Blues, the Yardbirds all released their debut albums (technically the Kinks was their second). Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home. Add in the Animals, the Beach Boys, and the Zombies and you have a pretty good record collection. 1966 saw even more luminaries hit the recording field: Simon and Garfunkel, and Cream hit the stage, but a new contender hit the airwaves: Psychedelic rock/protest rock/California rock? Whatever you called it, US bands fought back for control.. Buffalo Springfield (the future CSNY), Jefferson Airplane,  13th Floor Elevators, Love, Frank Zappa, the Fugs all highlighted the weirdness that was cropping up in the States with their debuts. Minds expanded, audiences expanded and the diversity of rock expanded exponentially.

    

 

 

It was 1967 that changed everything. LSD was ubiquitous in use, and society mirrored the kaleidoscopic sea change that the music industry went through. Topped by the Beatles Sgt Pepper, many band’s definitive albums came out this year alone: 13th Floor Elevator’s Easter Everywhere, Jefferson Airplane-Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxters, Jimi Hendrix-Are You Experienced and Axis Bold as Love, Pink Floyd-Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Doors-debut and Strange Days, Cream-Disraeli Gears, The Velvet Underground and Nico, the Grateful Dead debut, Traffic-Dear Mr. Fantasy, Love-Forever Changes, the Beatles-Magical Mystery Tour, the Moody Blues-Days of Future Passed, the Byrds-Younger Than Yesterday, Soft Machine debut, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie-Alice’s Restaurant, Moby Grape debut, Procol Harum debut, the Who-Sell Out-these 23 albums still form the core of many a well curated rock collection 49 years later, and are still considered the masterpiece of each bands work. And they all came out in one magic year. Rock had turned on, tuned in and turned up.

The class of 1967 spawned some fairly worthy progeny, as rock turned up, down and inside out. Add in the late comers to the scene like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Family, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Taste, the Stooges, Genesis, King Crimson, Chicago, the Guess Who, T Rex, MC5, Free, Van der Graaf Generator, Tangerine Dream, Spirit, Steve Miller, Steppenwolf, Sly and the Family Stone, J Geils Band, Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, Cat Stevens, Gentle Giant, David Bowie, Elton John, Mott the Hoople, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, Caravan, the Band, Hawkwind, Humble Pie, Rod Stewart, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Alice Cooper, Ten Years After, the Move, Deep Purple, Kraftwerk,  Can, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt,  Bob Marley and the Wailers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor, Funkadelic…a veritable full on collection of classic rock playlist of well knowns and cult favorites, and you have a full blown scene. Just this list would form a formidable collection of pure and diverse rock n roll unmatched by any releases in the last twenty years. All of the above bands were well established by the end of 1970.(All of these bands actually put an album out in calendar year 1970). The bar had been raised considerably  for any newcomers to the game.

So the 1976 punk era brought us a glimmer with the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Stranglers, the Sex Pistols, and the UK scene–the Ramones, Blondie, Television and the CBGBs scene. The synth pop and New Romantics of the 80’s? Does Duran Duran, Simple Minds and Spandau Ballet  warrant attention? Joy Division certainly does. One thing that became clear though, by the end of the 80’s, the ranks of the upcoming visionaries was thinning rapidly.

The early 90’s rock revival brought us Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Janes Addiction, Alice in Chains, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Fishbone, Smashing Pumpkins? With the some main exceptions like the daring Sonic Youth and the thoroughly acid soaked Butthole Surfers-even the good bands were starting to recycle ideas. Rock seemed out of steam. What started blossoming in 1965 had started to die on the vine only 25 years later. By 2000, the front door had  been left open for the next visionaries, but nobody was waiting on the doorstep.

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Which brings us to the spate of 50th anniversary tours. Never in my wildest dreams as a teenager could I have imagined that some of the best recent concerts I’ve attended would be 50th anniversary shows from the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. If a band lasted more than five years in the late sixties, it was considered a very real achievement. Tenth anniversaries used to be looked at with a mixture of imminent foreboding as well as a huge badge of honor. Hell, the Beatles never made it to ten years. Ten was a milestone, twenty went from unimaginable to a reality quickly for many in the 1970 list above. But FIFTY? No one in their right mind would ever imagine anything along those lines. Ludicrous wouldn’t even cover it if you ran this past Jann Wenner or Lester Bangs in the 70’s. Ironically, the Stones delivered one of their best tours in the last twenty years, even featuring Mick Taylor;  the Who’s Quadrophenia was still spine chilling even sans Moon and Entwistle on their 2013 jaunt; the Grateful Dead? Mixed reviews of their five date summer tour didn’t negate the huge crowds they drew. Yes, Kansas and Rush trotted out 40th and 45th anniversary affairs.

Another troubling sign is the rise of tribute bands from local barrooms to sheds and theaters. Beatles tribute bands have long populated this venue hopping genre, but the mop tops stopped touring in 1965. But newer bands are now blurring the line between reality and homage, while pulling in increasingly large numbers of fans. Dark Star Orchestra, a rip on the Dead, have headlined festivals and regularly packed theaters that their mentors did in the seventies. They toured with former Dead vocalist Donna Godchaux as a member of the band. Pink Floyd? Pick your poison-The Australian Pink Floyd and Brit Floyd regularly play theaters and arenas. Led Zeppelin? The field is crowded. Get The Led Out tours the States from coast to coast filling up theaters and sheds. This is the troubling part-cover bands as bar bands? Sure that makes sense. But when these guys start crawling up the ladder of success, and rock theaters are now headlining tribute bands, one must ask-where the fuck are the real bands? Why are people still so hungry for the magic of the 67-77 era that they will shell out bucks for the ersatz versions?

So where are the next ones to step up? The thought of Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie or the Arctic Monkeys filling up Boston Garden on their 50th anniversary? I would be hard pressed to say those guys even being  remotely remembered in 20 years, and would take odds they won’t even be playing an instrument then. The titanic waves generated by most of the ‘1970’ list above is now reduced to faint ripples in a pond made by the current rock cadre, barely noticeable in the bigger picture of what rock music has accomplished. Kids now flock to arenas to pray to the light machine, as shadowed figures tap at laptop computers to generate an electronic stroboscopic maelstrom, sometimes without an actual musical instrument on the stage. These are now the concerts where the ‘cool kids’ are showing up in droves-no band, no instruments, no real vocals-and riffs sampled (read: stolen) from records of the classic rock era-something very ironic and telling at the same time.  Has social media-everyone with their nose pressed into their goddamn cellphones-killed rock n roll?

Something very very special happened in a ten year run from 67-77, and it has taken the last 40 years to put this in perspective. Rock used to be a form of secret communication. Sex, drugs, mysticism? All contained on the album cover you reverently held in your hands while trying to decipher what the hell any of this meant, buried in huge headphones. Rock albums were your only source of good information about how the world really worked. Album covers soon gave way to CD booklets which gave way to postage stamp size album art on an iPod which gave way to no art at all on your cellphone. Lyric sheets disappeared. Too many questions have answers only a google flick away. Mystery is gone. Rock cannot any longer reinvent itself back to those days when it held sway over pop culture like a monolithic pseudo god, and provided what honestly functioned as a religion for a huge part of the youth and aging youth of America and the UK. Concert goers are now aging. I know there are plenty of good bands lighting up clubs everywhere-but none of them have done anything new, only recycled things done many times over since the 1967-1977 decade of excellence. Some well-stirring the pot of influences into an interesting variant on a theme, some not so good. But the old guard still filling arenas speaks volumes about what has come recently. And though I shudder as I type this, may mean that rock might actually be dying in front of  our eyes.