Archive for an appreciation

gregg allman, 1947-2017

gregg allman.

For all the twisted, jingoistic turns Southern rock took over the past four decades, there is no mistaking the fact the genre began with the Allman Brothers Band. And as the name so aptly inferred, that band began with two voices – the guitar lead of Duane Allman and the singing of younger sibling Gregg Allman.

Listen to the Allmans’ first three albums and you will experience a thrilling hybrid that summoned the blues, Southern R&B, a touch of organic psychedelia, jazz and gospel. Southern rock hadn’t descended into the stars-and-bars waving party parody that would eventually mesh with a highly marketable brand of commercial country music in the 1980s. It was instead a junction where the roots music innovations of the South merged. But all Southern rock – every last note, in fact – came in the wake of what the Allmans designed on 1969’s “The Allman Brothers Band,” 1970’s “Idlewild South” and 1971’s genre defining “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East.”

Then, of course, the Allmans story went South in a whole different way. Duane Allman and bassist Berry Oakley died in separate motorcycle crashes in nearly the same location, leaving only one Allman at the helm. Then stardom hit with all the excesses the ‘70s could muster. Gregg Allman soaked them all up, too. His celebrity status skyrocked even as his indulgences nearly killed him. The Allmans struggled on through breakups and reunions, bad blood and new blood. But by then, the band had largely become a mere protégé, one of many, to a music it had earlier spearheaded.

That’s not to say there weren’t fine recordings in the years to come. Both the band’s “Brothers and Sisters” and Gregg’s solo debut record “Laid Back” (released within months of each other during the second half of 1973) steered the Allman sound away from the guitar innovations Duane had pursued into a more steamlined but still soulful variation while 1979’s “Enlightened Rogues,” 1988’s “Seven Turns” and 2003’s “Hittin’ the Note” encapsulated the merits of three successive versions of the band. None of them, though, matched the seemingly effortless sense of adventure offered on those early Allmans records.

The announcement of Gregg Allman’s death today at age 69, sadly, isn’t surprising. It seems the singer has been cheating death for the better part of his career through a bounty of typical rock ‘n’ roll vices to a bout of Hepatitis C that led to a liver transplant to numerous maladies that interrupted a still active career in recent years.

Allman played Danville and Lexington as recently as last year with a capable revue-style program, but he looked and sounded frail, a walking testament to self-inflicted ravages.

It’s an easy estimation to say that an artist’s early work is oftentimes his or her best. But in Allman’s case, it really was. Soak in any of the recordings he was part of up through the end of 1973 and you will be witness to the voice of a generation and a genre at the peak of its stylistic strength.

“I say prayers of thanks every day,” Gregg told me in an interview prior to the Danville concert. “I’m a very blessed and fortunate person, I really am. I’ve had a beautiful life.”

 

chris cornell, 1964-2017

chris cornell.

Long before the rock mainstream co-opted the term “grunge” as a fashionable means to market a punk/metal-ish collective of artists pouring out of the Northwest, there was Soundgarden. The band was one of the formative voices of its generation, one empowered with garage rock smarts, youthful gusto and unapologetically brazen immediacy. At the center of that cyclone was Chris Cornell.

Cornell’s death on Tuesday is disturbing on a number of levels, not the least of which was its ruling this afternoon as a suicide by hanging. He was 52, an elder in rock ‘n’ roll terms, yet what a terribly premature age to leave the world with. But there was also the image, perhaps a naïve one to those of us outside the inner workings of an artist, that all seemed well – enviable, even – with his career. He managed the impossible by balancing performance lives as a solo artist as well as with a reconstituted Soundgarden, which regrouped in 2010 after a 13 year split.

Then again, how can an audience member even begin to comprehend what plays out in the mind of an artist they adulate, especially during that performer’s offstage life? That’s ultimately what makes Cornell’s passing so disheartening.

I first saw Cornell sometime in the late 1980s – best guess is 1989 – when Soundgarden played the long gone Short St. rock club The Wrocklage (Shakespeare & Co. now occupies that building). Memories are scattered of that performance, mostly because I knew so little of the band at the time. But I was in the minority. With the beginnings of an indie rock revolution already taking hold, word on the band has already spread. I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Outside of Son Volt’s 1995 debut at The Wrocklage, I have never been in a club so packed with patrons as I was at the Soundgarden show. But Son Volt was a folk act compared to Cornell and company. What I do remember was how his voice – that atomic, operatic voice – seemed to rip the room right off the floorboards.

Flash forward to May 2007, almost a decade ago to the week. Cornell was a solo act playing the Louisville Palace one day after the release of “Carry On,” his first album following the breakup of Audioslave, the Los Angeles band he fronted with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

This was the evening that stuck with me. While Cornell was promoting new music, the two hour performance was essentially a career overview covering Soundgarden tunes, Audioslave music and even a few songs from Temple of the Dog, the famed but short lived early ‘90s Seattle band that also boasted several members of the soon-to-be-formed Pearl Jam.

And as an unassuming nod to his star status, Cornell also performed “You Know My Name,” the theme song he wrote and recorded for the first James Bond film of the Daniel Craig era (and one of the finest Bond movies overall), “Casino Royale,” which had become an international hit the previous fall.

Cornell established his credentials at the onset of the evening, tearing into the show-opening “Spoonman” – the lead single from Soundgarden’s 1994 breakthrough album, “Superunknown.” Hearing him blast away on the songs affirmed how much the enduring Seattle bands of that era (Pearl Jam included) owed to Cornell’s intensity as well as to his honest, even good natured stage demeanor.

This wasn’t some staged presentation of rock/metal rage. The music was triumphant and real. It may have come from a different, darker generation, but it addressed the same restlessness that fueled every rock ‘n’ roll generation before and since.

col. bruce hampton, 1947-2017

col. bruce hampton.

Familiar with the term “old soul,” the common tag for a personality that might be worldlier than one’s youthful appearance would suggest? Well, Col. Bruce Hampton was the antithesis of that. Oh, he was worldly, alright, right from the early ‘70s when roamed the road with his Zappa-esque Hampton Grease Band. But the career we know the guitarist, bandleader and cosmic raconteur best for placed him in the company of a succession of players that were often a full generation younger. Hampton may have looked like everyone’s dad – portly, mustached, graying – but he possessed the same jovial, inquisitive and playful demeanor of the artists he made music with. That made him not just an unlikely hero of jam band audiences beginning in the early ‘90s, but a journeyman that gave little regard to the age discrepancy between himself and his band mates.

The ‘90s records and seemingly endless tours Hampton clocked with the Aquarium Rescue Unit by and large introduced him to an audience far larger and more loyal than the cultish pockets of fans that took to his music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hampton’s new generation groove sounds would shift considerably as the decade progressed, taking on strides of jazz, funk and fusion with succeeding bands like the Fiji Mariners and, my favorite, the Codetalkers. The latter, which played Lexington several times at the long-since demolished Dame, had Hampton and his band dressed in suits and ties (although the Col. always still looked appropriately untucked) and boasted a monster guitarist named Bobby Lee Rodgers who played his instrument through the same type of Leslie cabinet used by organ players.

“Usually, I let them go for about five or seven years,” Hampton told me in a December 1996 interview about the frequency with which he formed and dissolved bands. “Sometimes, it’s process that just happens. But that’s fine. I like to build things up and then tear them down. After all, square one is always a challenge for me.”

Whatever the band, audiences loved the music, yet no one seemed to dig it more than Hampton himself. On one hand, he seemed like an aging hippie. But in truth, he was an ageless one who fed off the youthful zeal of his fans and fellow musicians just as much as they looked to him for journeys down continually new musical paths.

Hampton’s exit, sudden and shocking as it was, seemed a strangely fitting final chapter to such an artistically freewheeling existence and career. The subject of an all-star tribute concert last night at Atlanta’s Fox Theater honoring his 70th birthday, Hampton collapsed onstage during the encore and subsequently died. A horrifying experience, no doubt for the audience and artist gathered for the occasion. But, with all the respect in the world intended, what a way for a musician to go.

allan holdsworth, 1946-2017

allan holdsworth,

What defines greatness in a rock guitarist? Is it speed? Intensity? Histronics? Is it an elemental understanding and construction of a groove? Is it a combination fashioned to cultivate an image or simply convey an emotion?

For Allan Holdsworth, who died on Saturday at the age of 70, none of that was entirely the case. For this veteran British prog and fusion stylist, his decades-long career was about developing a voice of his own for an instrument that superseded all the clichéd rock star profiles many guitarists subscribed to. Holdsworth could play with the speed and potency that everyday guitar heroes viewed as virtues. But by the time he was gigging with the pioneering prog band Soft Machine as far back 1974, Holdsworth had developed a voice that was uncompromisingly distinct– one that continually stretched tone and technique through winding lyrical phrases that always packed a strong emotive jolt without ever sounding forced.

For the remainder of the ‘70s, Holdsworth cultivated that voice as a hired gun guitarist for, in quick succession, the New Tony Williams Lifetime, Jean-Luc Ponty, UK and Bruford. Though he continued with a prolific career of his own during the ‘80s that highlighted the MIDI-controlled synthaxe, it was Holdsworth’s collaborative sets with the latter two artists that, for me, defined the beauty of his playing.

On UK’s 1978 self-titled album, his solos were astounding not because of flash or indulgence, but for the opposite. They were vignettes of concise, complete construction that yielded a sense of exquisitely contained drama. His solo during “In the Dead of Night” stands as an ideal example. With Bruford 1979’s album “One of a Kind,” one of the era’s most tastefully crafted prog albums, his work served as a consistently complimentary color to the playing of drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Dave Stewart and bassist Jeff Berlin.

The last decade produced little by way of new music, although the 2002 concert album “All Night Wrong” stands as a wonderful trio band primer on the tone, power and expression that provided Holdsworth’s guitar voice such a rich musical vocabulary.

“Allan Holdsworth’s unique contribution to the electric guitar is unquantifiable,” said fellow guitar pioneer Steve Vai in a Facebook post yesterday, “I remember him saying to me once that his goal was to create a catalog of music that was undiluted. Well, that he did.”

j. geils, 1946-2017

J. Geils in 2011. Photo by Scott Legato / Getty Images.

The first time I heard the J. Geils Band was during those early ‘70s late night performance programs on TV – “Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” to be exact. While it wasn’t the first champion roadhouse rock band to roll across the screen, it was one of the first – for me, at least – to have so many components of rock ‘n’ roll, in its most live and celebratory form, make sense when slammed together.

There was the outrageous frontman in Peter Wolf (a hotwired Boston hybrid of Mick Jagger and James Brown), a band with a tireless rhythm section bolstered by two monster soloists and a musical palette that took blues, R&B and juke joint influences from decades past and fashioned them into a roaring sound of its own. The results countered music cooked up by all the faux boogie-men of the era with a sense of combustible soul that quickly ignited in a performance setting.

Geils, who died yesterday at the age of 71, wasn’t even the focal point of the band that bore his name. That was undeniably Wolf. Geils wasn’t a showoff as a guitarist, either. As a rhythm player, he propelled a roots-savvy sound and the undeniable party atmosphere it triggered. As a soloist, he was always commanding in his playing. On several seminal ‘70s albums, especially 1973’s “Bloodshot” and “Ladies Invited” and 1974’s “Nightmares… and Other Tales from the Vinyl Jungle,” his playing was often the second half of a one-two punch initiated by the band’s other principal instrumentalist, harmonica ace Magic Dick. The last songs on each of those albums, “Give It To Me” (a 1973 hit built around an unlikely reggae groove), “Chimes” (a blast of funereal cool) and “Gettin’ Out” (one of the meanest sounding and most overlooked tunes the J. Geils Band ever cut), respectively, were diverse examples of how resourceful the group was. In short, the Geils crew could do battle with the most outrageous rockers of the era, but it also boasted the charisma, depth and drive to be something far greater.

Of course, stardom took hold of the band during the early ‘80s with the albums “Love Stinks” and “Freeze Frame.” Fun as both were, neither possessed the roots abandon of records Geils and company cut a decade earlier. Curiously, the next most appealing era of the guitarist’s career came in the ‘90s when he and Magic Dick toured in a jazz, blues and swing unit called Bluestime that purposely downplayed his rock roots but not the roots itself.

“We had a lot of fun and a fair amount of success in the old days, but I had gotten a little tired of it,” Geils told me in an interview prior to a Bluestime show at the Kentucky Horse Park in 1995. “I just want to make it clear that we’re not some rockers trying to capitalize on the blues boom. Any serious jazz or blues guy will tell you the same thing, that music like this is a lifelong journey. The more you learn, the more you learn how much you don’t know yet.”

paul o’neill, 1956-2017

Paul O’Neill of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (Jim Cooper, File AP Photo)

With the Trans-Siberian Orchestra becoming a near annual performance staple at Rupp Arena, so came frequent opportunities to interview Paul O’Neill. He wasn’t one of the ensemble’s principal performers. As far as I knew, he was never even at any of TSO’s Rupp appearances. O’Neill was instead the CEO of TSO, the sole brain trust of what had become a consistently strong selling touring act that merged metal, ‘70s-era prog and pure arena rock pageantry.

These were educational experiences, to say the least. An interview with O’Neill was largely a one-sided affair. A journalist’s question was essentially a point of ignition. Once asked, O’Neill would speak effortlessly, endlessly and informatively for the rest of the allotted time – and often beyond. He wasn’t being rude or inattentive to his interviewer. O’Neill simply knew the story he wanted to tell, whether it dealt with specifics about a particular TSO album or, with greater relish, his whole concept for TSO – a band he thought of in terms that were always large – large in personnel, large in audience attendance and especially large in terms of presentation.

“I wanted a band that could do anything, a band that could take the best of all the great acts that I worshipped – bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Queen – and have a marriage of classical and rock,” he told me in a 2009 interview. “I wanted to give a third dimension to the music.”

I’ll put my cards on the table here. I always thought of TSO as a glorified Spinal Tap. Their shows were exercises in quite purposeful excess that no review (or reviewer) could adequately describe. But as with bands like Kiss, whose shows TSO seemed to most closely emulate, fans were beyond devout. For them, what mattered was spectacle – something O’Neill’s TSO army always delivered, along with a serving of holiday sentiment that was as huge as the band’s overall presence.

It was hard not to enjoy the ride as O’Neill held court during interviews, offering outrageous stories like this 2009 yarn detailing how a TSO concert literally sucked the electric life out of The Meadowlands in New Jersey.

“About 15 minutes into the show, the stage goes dark. The production manager comes running over and goes, ‘Paul, we just blew the circuit breaker for the Meadowlands. I thought, ‘Really? Cool.’ It was one of the high points of my life.”

Or this tale, from a 2014 interview, when O’Neill recounted what triggered the inspiration for TSO’s double-platinum album “The Christmas Attic.”

“Well, the statute of limitations ran out on this a long time ago, so it’s okay to talk about. I think the technical term for it is breaking and entering.”

O’Neill died unexpectedly today at the age of 61. But there is no question that his vision for the TSO will remain larger than rock ‘n’ life for years to come.

“Ultimately, TSO is like any other living thing,” O’Neill told me in 2012. “It’s just that it’s musically driven as opposed to celebrity driven.”

chuck berry, 1926-2017

chuck berry, circa 1957.

Now who will tell Tchaikovsky the news?

For over 60 years, the job belonged to Chuck Berry via one of his most familiar and prized hits, “Roll Over Beethoven.” With Berry’s passing yesterday at age 90, rock ‘n’ roll lost not only one of its preeminent stylists and composers, but one of its most integral architects. Jazz without Jelly Roll Morton? Bluegrass without Bill Monroe? Country music without the Carter Family? That’s what Berry was to rock ‘n’ roll. Since rock has been more pervasive that any other contemporary music style, the weight of his influence and inspiration can in no way be understated.

Everything from song structure and thematic source material to guitar riffs and the music’s very joy and rhythm shook every succeeding generation. More than any other artist, more than even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (who proudly admitted to being disciples), Berry shaped the very landscape of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs were covered countless times and imitated (often blatantly so) to unending degrees. Among them: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Maybellene,” “Memphis, Tennessee” and “Too Much Monkey Business” (a personal favorite). Collectively, these songs served as the DNA for an art form that, during the remarkably contained period in which they were recorded and released (between 1955 and 1959), had barely learned to walk.

After the 1964 singles like “You Never Can Tell” and “Promised Land,” Berry’s hold on the rock charts slipped, although the 1972 novelty tune “My Ding-a-Ling” became one of his best selling hits. By then, his music had already become part of the pop vernacular. There was perhaps no more satisfying tribute paid to his influence than Taylor Hackford’s 1986 documentary “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the filmed account of two 1986 concerts that had all-star protégés Keith Richards, Roy Orbison, Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Robert Cray and more playing Berry’s hits alongside the master. Today, it serves as a moving timepiece that chronicles the lasting presence, vigor and resilience of Berry’s music.

Like rock ‘n’ roll? Any kind of rock ‘n’ roll? Then pass along some thanks today to Chuck Berry. The party, quite simply, would not have been anywhere near as fun had he not crashed it.

 

larry coryell, 1943-2017

larry coryell.

The sudden passing on Sunday of guitarist Larry Coryell at age 73 marked the passing of a generational pioneer in jazz music, even though his gifts as an instrumentalist far outweighed his reputation.

Coryell has rightly been viewed as one of the guiding forces in fusion, an electric offshoot of jazz that made the music instantly accessible to a rock generation already immersed in stylistic revolution during the late 1960s. Indeed, Coryell albums like “Space,” along with his earliest works fronting the funk/fusion troupe The Eleventh House, were as genre defining as any of the Miles Davis offshoot projects led by Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Curiously, his music always seemed more reactionary than the work of those contemporaries. But it wasn’t jazz Coryell was rebelling against. He met the boogie-centric jam groups earning airtime on FM radio on their own turf and wildly outdistanced their level of musicianship while still retaining a jazz sensibility. In many ways, Coryell’s electric music had more in common with the jazzier experimentation of Frank Zappa than anything the Davis camp was conjuring.

But for my money, the real magic came in the recordings and performances that went acoustic. Between 1977 and 1979, Coryell released six remarkable acoustic albums. Some were expert collaborations with other guitarists similarly pigeonholed by their electric work (Steve Khan, Philip Catherine and a young John Scofield). But the best were two solo sessions from 1978 – “Standing Ovation” and “European Impressions,” both of which scream for reissue treatment.

Fast forward two decades and you have what may be Coryell’s finest overall recording, 1999’s “Private Concert.” Despite the title, this was a studio date of solo and multi-tracked “duets” displaying Coryell’s acoustic brilliance on Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K.”

It was with these acoustic records that Coryell’s stylistic mash-ups of jazz, blues, swing and Eastern music giddily collided in a sound both daring and delicate.

Coryell was wildly prolific through the rest of his career, even as far as completing a weekend engagement at New York’s Iridium club the night before his death. He was also an extrovert on and offstage, suggesting the animation he invested in his playing carried into his everyday life. Or vice versa.

“Everything here is true… I think,” Coryell inscribed to me in a copy of his autobiography “Improvising: My Life in Music” following a Louisville concert in 2007. Coryell may have been referencing the descriptions he penned about music in his book. But the music itself? Coryell didn’t need to doubt himself. Every note was true.

 

john wetton, 1949-2017

john wetton.

Forgive the nostalgia showing, but hearing any recording featuring John Wetton shoots me back to the ‘70s. He wasn’t any kind of generational pop star back then. That honor would hit him in the next decade. But for the better part of the ‘70s, Wetton was prog rock’s prime utility man. He was a mercenary bass guitarist who purposely shunned the spotlight during brief touring tenures with Roxy Music and Uriah Heep but found a comfortable role as front man with the all-star quartet (and, later, trio) U.K. And for those who grew up in the golden age on MTV, he was the vocalist for the more overtly radio friendly ‘80s music generated by a pack of more commercial conscious prog vets known as Asia.

By my preference remains the mountain of wondrous music Wetton cut in a scant two years as a member of King Crimson. As a vocalist, he was as recognizable as he was distinctive. His warm but modestly coarse wail was complimentary to any mood piece the 1972-74 era Crimson would serve up, from demonstrative rock adventures like “Easy Money” and “The Great Deceiver” to epic funereal mood pieces like “Starless.” That voice was what would later launch Asia to such brief charttopping heights, but it was only part of what made Wetton such a versed artist.

The rest dealt with his musicianship, which went largely unheralded through the years. Sample the bounty of concert material Crimson has issued from those years – 1975’s “USA” and 1997’s “The Night Watch” being the most readily obtainable (although the band’s website has a ton of wickedly inventive 1973 and 1974-era live recordings for purchase) – and you will hear a monster improviser at work. Guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford and violinist David Cross were featured more prominently, but the way Wetton detonated huge, fuzzy bass patterns around their playing was the crowning touch in what remains Crimson’s most daring and rewarding improvisational lineup.

By all written accounts one of rock music’s genuine nice guys, Wetton died yesterday at age 67 following a battle with colon cancer. Want a crash course in the beauty of his vocal chops and instrumental smarts? Then take a listen to Wetton’s final studio album with King Crimson, 1974’s “Red.” The trip gets a little dark at times, but the sights and sounds are sublime.

butch trucks, 1947-2017

butch trucks.

Take all the stereotypical images of the rock ‘n’ roll drummer instilled through the decades – especially the ones that stressed bravado and Spinal Tap-level theatrics over taste, timing and talent – and then flip them. Among the artists you are likely to find on the other side is Butch Trucks.
For 45 years, Trucks occupied one of the two drum chairs in the Allman Brothers Band. From its inception in 1969 to its final dispersal in 2014, he was a deceptively quiet partner in a tight knit pack of mavericks that meshed Southern blues, rock, swing, country and jazz into a sound that spawned successive generations of imitators. The headlines always went to the figurehead players – namely, singer Gregg Allman or the succession of remarkable guitarists passing through the ranks that included founder Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and the drummer’s heralded nephew, Derek Trucks. Aside from brother Gregg, the elder Trucks was the only player to serve in every incarnation of the band.
But listen to the Allmans’ studio or numerous live recordings and what you heard was a remarkable contrast to the machismo beats and grooves that dominated mainstream rock then and now. Trucks’ playing, like that of longtime Allmans co-hort Jaimoe, fell into an easier stride. It seemed more jazz-rooted than anything, pinpointing a shuffle or bit of swing and then leading it more by instinct than technique.
Wonderful cases in point: the light but relentless percussive groove that glides along with “Dreams” on the Allmans’ self-titled 1969 debut album, the subtle acceleration that pumps into action during 1972’s “Les Brer in A Minor” and the seemingly docile rhythm that whips itself into a slide-savvy frenzy during the crescendo of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (especially the 1973 live version, a decidedly jazzy revision with Chuck Leavell on keyboards).
Sure, Trucks got plenty of room to solo during the increasingly long jams that became prevalent throughout the band’s later years. But like all truly great drummers, regardless of genre or generation, he was at his best when others were at the helm. A star he wasn’t. Trucks was instead the engine driver, an unassuming but assertive percussive force within a legendary band and sound.

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