Archive for July, 2015

critic’s pick 282: yes, ‘progeny – highlights from seventy two’

yes progenyIt is perhaps an inevitability that we now view Progeny, a diamond mine find from the concert vaults of prog-rock institution Yes, as a eulogy given the death two weekends ago of the band’s bassist and co-founder Chris Squire. Call it instead a case of coincidental timing.

Progeny, in fact, arrived a full month before Squire succumbed to leukemia at age 67. But it’s hard to imagine a more fitting parting shot for the one Yes member that served in every performing and recording lineup of the band through its 45-plus year history until this summer.

Progeny is a portrait of Yes in its prime. It brings to light recordings of seven full concerts by the band performed during the fall of 1972. At the time, Close to the Edge – still the band’s finest hour – had scaled the charts and the drum chair had switched from Bill Bruford to Alan White (who still serves in Yes today). The concerts were discovered as a search commenced for the master tapes of Yes’ studio recordings for a remastering and reissuing project.

The full concert sets are available as a massive 14 disc boxed set titled Progeny: Seven from Seventy Two. For more modest budgets, there is the vastly more affordable (about $18) double disc version, Progeny: Highlights from Seventy Two. The latter is being reviewed here.

What we hear throughout the double-disc edition, which replicates a typical concert by Yes at the time, is one of the finest rosters of the band (Squire, White, vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman) going for broke. You hear the abandon within with hammering introduction to Heart of the Sunrise and again as the song eases off into melodic cool. Squire is in the heat of it all, too, driving the momentum in tandem with Howe and White and luxuriating under the more symphonic grace of Anderson and Wakeman.

Most prog bands are known best for their studio work, with Yes being no exception. But this lineup nonetheless revels in the youthful gusto that ignites Progeny readings of Close to the Edge’s 18 minute title suite, the radio hit Roundabout and what stands as possibly the band’s most powerful composition, Yours is No Disgrace.

It should be noted that Progeny does not duplicate any recordings from the band’s 1973 live album Yessongs. But the sonic clarity of Progeny greatly improves on the former collection. This is the sound of ‘70s prog cut at that rare instance when commercial popularity and artistic vision met. It’s also serves, quite unintentionally, as a magnificent career coda to one of the music’s most beloved heroes.

critic’s pick: jason isbell, ‘something more than free

jason-isbell-something-more-than-freeEarly into the title tune to his often elegiac new album Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell struggles with the trials of a dogged workingman’s existence. He’s grateful for the employment, earnest in its execution but restless enough to understand the fragility of the resulting environment.

“When I get home from work, I call up all my friends,” he sings with disarming but deceptive candor, “and we’ll go bust up something beautiful we’ll have to build again.”

The sentiment applies directly to the pages of Isbell’s own life, one fortified by the strengths a new family life and the recovery from a crippling alcohol addiction. While Something More Than Free boasts the lightest and dare we say sweetest tone musically of any record he has cut, it’s not built on the promise of easy, happy endings.

What you hear musically are songs seasoned with a sense of folkish invitation that could be viewed rightly as Americana bordering on substantive country music (if there is such a thing anymore). But lyrically, much of the album flirts with combustion. The extraordinary 24 Frames effortlessly reflects such a tentative balance. The melody floats along like a 1987-era John Mellencamp song, complete with wife Amanda Shires coloring the music on fiddle in a manner highly similar to what Lisa Germano did for the celebrated Hoosier over 25 years ago. While the storyline is an affirmation of family and hope, the shadows following it are long and dark, as is the succinct depiction Isbell provides of faith as well as his own state of mind (“like a pipe bomb ready to blow”).

The subtle turbulence swerves in numerous directions throughout Something Closer to Free. On Children of Children, a saga of impending teenage parenthood unfolds under a love story fragile enough to implode at any moment (“You and I were almost nothing, we’d pray to God that God was bluffing”) and a bittersweet acoustic melody that could have been fashioned by Neil Young 40 years ago. The small town restlessness of Speed Trap Town is equally unsettling (“a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss”).

Of particular interest is Palmetto Rose, an ode to South Carolina that obviously predated last month’s horrific hate crime murders and the subsequent Confederate Flag controversy. It honors certain elements of faith and folklore (“Lord, let me die in the Iodine State”) but dismisses more antiquated and inaccurate historical notions, like the lawless native spewing some “(expletive) story about the Civil War.”

That sums up the uneasy embrace of Something More Than Free, a record of modest but hardly lasting victories as well as the monumental costs tied to them.

dead again

trey anastasio, phil lesh and bob weir performing at the grateful dead's june 28 concert at levi's stadium in santa clara. photo by jay blakesberg/invision for the grateful dead.

trey anastasio, phil lesh and bob weir performing at the grateful dead’s june 28 concert at levi’s stadium in santa clara. photo by jay blakesberg/invision for the grateful dead.

The holiday weekend’s most prominent musical happening, at least from an historical pop perspective, will be the much ballyhooed finale concerts of the Grateful Dead at Soldier’s Field in Chicago.

The distinction of such an event isn’t so much the career coda itself, but how it is being marketed. In lieu of the standardized farewell tour, the surviving members – guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann – are playing a mere five concerts in two cities. The first were held last weekend at Santa Clara, Ca., near where the iconic psychedelic band got its start 50 years ago. The Chicago shows take place tonight through Sunday, almost two decades to the day (and at the same location) where the band played its last concerts with Jerry Garcia.

The figurehead guitarist died that August. For all intentions, the band dissolved with him. The four core members have toured as an ensemble a few times since then under the moniker of The Dead and, without Kreutzmann, as The Other Ones. These finale shows mark the first time they have performed as the Grateful Dead since 1995. While the members have stated these will be their final shows together, all will maintain separate careers.

Here is where the marketing savvy kicks in. This weekend’s performances – which generated over 350,000 ticket requests through advance sales – are being made available to fans worldwide through almost every media outlet available. There will be pay-for-view webcasts, on-demand viewing on satellite and cable television and even live simulcasts in over 1,110 movie theaters. For a full rundown of options, go to dead50.net.

Locally, the Dead’s performances will be shown at the Cinemark Fayette Mall tonight, Saturday and Sunday.

For those intrigued by this final chorus from the Dead, but feel less compelled to take part in all the revelry, recordings of the shows will be released on CD, DVD and Blue-Ray by Rhino Records as Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead. They are scheduled for release on Nov. 20.

This may well be the first time an official, formal concert recording (not a quickly produced, indie-manufactured “bootleg”) has earned a confirmed release date before the performances making up those recordings even took place.

Appraisals of last weekend’s Santa Clara performances – with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, pianist and longtime Dead co-hort Bruce Hornsby and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti augmenting the Dead quartet – were largely favorable. An Associated Press review by Lisa Leff of the opening concert on June 27 gave specific praise to a 20 minute version of Viola Lee Blues (cut originally for the band’s 1967 self-titled debut album) and the way it made Anastasio a key player in this brief Dead revival.

If you’re headed to Cinemark, be prepared for a long night. The June 27 concert lasted 3 ½ hours. The Fandango site said this weekend’s revelry could last as much as five hours each evening.

“I’m not sure we’re going to last five hours,” Weir told The New Yorker earlier in June. “Even back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we didn’t play for five hours on many nights, despite being famous for doing that. You do it one time and you get famous for it.”

‘Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead’ will be simulcast at 8 p.m. July 3-5 at Cinemark Fayette Mall, 3800 Mall Rd. Tickets are $12-$14. Call (859) 971-0718 or go to fandango.com.

critic’s pick 281: richard thompson, ‘still’

RichardThompson StillTo grossly paraphrase an old cliché, you can take an Englishman out of England, but you can’t always make him dance to an American tune.

On his new album Still, British folk-rock forefather Richard Thompson teams with Wilco headmaster Jeff Tweedy as producer. But on the opening She Never Could Resist a Winding Road, Thompson sings of wanderlust and all the emotional wreckage left in its wake over a gentle melody that resembles a Celtic reverie.

The singer/guitarist has traveled this path before on the brilliant Beeswing (which remains a favorite among his concert audiences). But Winding Road is more ragged. It dances and clangs more severely against its elegant framework, sounding less like a Wilco-inspired collaboration and more like a sagely take on the folk-friendly experiments Thompson engaged in with Fairport Convention during the late ‘60s.

Tweedy approaches Still much in the same manner Americana chieftain Buddy Miller approached production duties for 2013’s equally fine Electric album for Thompson – meaning, he steers clear of the main attraction to fashion a recording that is swiftly streamlined in its sense of songcraft, stylistically faithful to folk tradition without becoming mired in it and spacious enough to let the roar of Thompson’s still-potent guitar work loose. That alone makes Still a fine addition to a canon of arresting recordings Thompson has released under his own name over the last three decades.

Life and love remain touchy subjects for Thompson on Still. Despite its ultra-Celtic title, Patty Don’t You Put Me Down is a lean, guitar-dominate rumination on the kind of twisted romance Thompson has become a scholar at writing about. “In your 10 watt world, it’s beyond any pleasure you know,” he sings with ample venom, “to stick your fingers in the socket and give yourself a glow.”

Josephine reverses the tension into a largely acoustic reflection full of poetically dour detail while No Peace, No End turns more topical (“In the big chess game, there is only one winner and it’s always somebody else”) with an electric rumble both unsettled and anthemic. The latter’s monumental string-bending is expanded upon in more playful fashion during Guitar Heroes, an medley-style ode that honors a bowler-full of stylistic innovators (from Django Reinhardt to The Shadows) before Thompson adds his two cents for a coda to prove himself a worthy disciple.

The killer, quite literally, is Dungeons for Eyes, a glance into a murderous soul now viewed by society with a puzzling acceptance. “How we forgive old rivalries half forgot,” Thompson sings with learned desperation. “We smile as best we can, but I can’t let it go.” The guitar work is as stinging as the storyline, yet in under four exquisitely tense minutes the storm passes and the song is complete.

How fitting it all seems – titling an album of such calculated restlessness and turmoil Still. That’s Richard Thompson for you.

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