Archive for critic’s picks

critic’s pick 259: king crimson, ‘live at the orpheum’

King-Crimson-Live-At-The-OrpheumOn the back cover of Live at the Orpheum, the seven members of prog mainstay King Crimson that convened for a fall 2014 tour appear in black suits and ties, looking more like a hip corporate board than a pack of learned rock vets.

Inside, of course, is where the newly reconstituted Crimson gets down to serious business. With a front line of three drummers and a back line led by guitarist/founder Robert Fripp, the band discovers astonishing new life within vintage compositions, some of which no Crimson lineup has played live in over 42 years. But a nostalgia ride Live at the Orpheum is not.

The current band roster boasts returnees from Crimson lineups spanning each of the past five decades, along with one fresh recruit. Although the songs, aside from two brief instrumentals, aren’t new, the playing is ripe with reinvention.

Take the one-two punch of The Letters and A Sailor’s Tale, originally from 1971’s Islands but absent from the band’s performance repertoire since 1972.

The return of ‘70s saxophonist/flutist Mel Collins and the advent of the drum trio (Pat Mastelotto, Bill Rieflin and Gavin Harrison) on The Letters sets up a feel that falls between operatic and psychedelic. The mood is completed by new guitarist/vocalist (but longtime Crimson ally) Jakko Jakszyk, whose singing adds an almost Gothic drama to the piece.

A Sailor’s Tale is a revelation. Initiated by the drummers with shimmering and eventually propulsive percussion, the tune’s fuse is lit by Collins’ free-jazz accents on sax along with the dual guitar melodies of Fripp and Jakszyk. The music later swells to a thundering crescendo piloted by longtime Crimson bassist/stick player Tony Levin.

From a comparatively newer court of this Crimson king comes the title tune to 2000’s The ConstruKction of Light, retooled as a mischievous instrumental distinguished by flute and sax runs from Collins and the continually playful groove of the drum team.

Completing the setlist for this sadly brief 41 minute live document are two works from 1974’s Red cut after Collins left the band even though he contributed greatly to the record. One More Red Nightmare, which Crimson never played live prior to this tour, leaps to life with plump guitar riffs and percussive bounce. The album-closing Starless, again with remarkable coloring by Collins and grounding by Levin, is a requiem that opens with icy calm before building, layer by layer, into rhythmic frenzy.

How permanent will this Crimson be? Hard to say. The joyous aspect of such wonder, though, is that even if the band disappears, we have this volcanic document of when the King shook the world again.

King Crimson bassist Tony Levin will perform with the California Guitar Trio on Jan. 31 at the St. Xavier Performance Center, 600 West North Bend St in Cincinnati (7:30 p.m.; $36, $41). Call (513) 484-0157 or go to www.gcparts.org.

critic’s pick 256: leonard cohen, ‘live in dublin’

leoanrd cohen live in dublin“The present’s not that pleasant,” sings Leonard Cohen on Darkness, an unassuming and perhaps unintentional centerpiece tune to Live in Dublin. “Just a lot of things to do.”

As poetic and sleekly disturbing as ever, Cohen remains both the king and jester of his domain. A restless troubadour and distinguished elder who turned 79 just a few weeks after this performance was given in 2013, he has completely renewed himself over the past seven years as a concert artist after a prolonged absence from the stage. Live in Dublin is his latest and most vivid snapshot from the road – a three CD, 30 song account of a single Irish concert along with an accompanying DVD of the show.

Initially, one might ask if such a package was even necessary. Cohen issued a double-disc live recording in 2009 (Live in London) and a single disc companion in 2011 (Songs From the Road) that introduced his new performance guise. Live in Dublin replicates much of the repertoire from the earlier albums and utilizes essentially the same band. Even the blue-hued cover art from Live in Dublin seems purposely fashioned after Live in London.

So why the massive and seemingly redundant follow-up? Well, for starters, Live in Dublin augments the set list with songs from Cohen’s 2012 studio record, Old Ideas – arguably, his best set of new songs in three decades. It was from Old Ideas that Darkness came. Also from the record we have the bluesy prayer for repentance Amen (“I’m listening… I’m listening so hard that it hurts”) and the powerfully contemplative lullaby Come Healing that views mankind largely as a pack of universal bystanders (“none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace”).

Cohen reflected heavily about mortality on Old Ideas. That might make those songs seem removed from such early and outwardly intimate fare as Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel #2 or I’m Your Man, all of which are delivered with sagely subtlety on Live on Dublin. But since Cohen has adopted such a slight, sweeping but richly orchestrated sound from his touring band, boundaries between new and old music are blurred quite handsomely.

A beautiful case-in-point comes during the record’s third disc, which is devoted to the Irish concert’s encore tunes. There, the gentle Old Ideas scolding from God Going Home (“I’d love to speak with Leonard… he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”) is paired with the vengeful and earthy doomsday rumination First We Take Manhattan (“I’m coming to reward them”).

Of course, romance isn’t fully suppressed amid the turmoil. Cohen brings down the curtain on the three hour Live in Dublin with a cover of Save the Last Dance For Me. But amid the samba-like sway of his band and his own bullfrog whisper of a voice, one senses the song’s inclusion is tongue-in-cheek, a tune to whistle as civilization crumbles.

critic’s pick 256: james farm, ‘city folk’

james-farm-city-folkJames Farm is a part-time jazz collective boasting a swift melodic kick, meaty but understated improvisational prowess and a strong compositional sense that speaks strongly to the band’s often orderly sound.

If all that makes the all-star quartet seem safe, don’t fret. James Farm simply favors music that is less confrontational than the product of many like-minded jazz troupes. That provides the band’s sophomore album, City Folk, with an appealing accessibility – the kind that usually relies on fusion and/or R&B accents. City Folk dismisses both with 10 original compositions (three each by saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Matt Penman with one by drummer Eric Harland).

Take Harland’s North Star, for example. The rhythm section plays with stately confidence over a melody that is strong enough to carry the tune with natural grace. But it’s also light enough for the bounce of Redman’s tenor sax lead and Penman’s limber bass lines to dance about. When Parks gently wrestles the melody away, Harland remains steadfast. The result is a song with the cohesion of a pop tune and the instrumental muscle of fusion. But the execution and intent is all straight ahead jazz.

With a 20-plus year recording career under his own name to his credit, Redman is the marquee name within the James Farm lineup. To be sure, his glowing tenor tone lights up the soft focus shuffle of City Folk’s title tune and the more percolating East Coast rumble of Mr. E (both are Redman compositions). But if there is a dominate voice, it belongs to Parks. A refreshingly diverse stylist, both as a lead voice and a rhythm player, the pianist is at the heart of City Folks’ easygoing flow.

On Aspirin, he punches out organic funk on Yamaha electric piano under Harland’s unhurried shuffle and Redman’s playful tenor that alternates between restless punctuation and lyrical warmth. Then he lightly colors Jury’s Out with simultaneous lead and melodic phrases to enhance a prevailing sense of cool (both tunes were written by Penman).

Mostly, though, City Folk is an album of feel and mood. Cut exactly a year ago in Brooklyn, one can only assume this music was a reaction of sorts to the dead-of-winter conditions surrounding the sessions. Though released in late October, the music’s resulting temperament is perhaps best appreciated as January takes hold. Listen to the subtle orchestration provided by, of all things, mellotron, during the Parks tune Otherwise and you sense the crafty melodic sweep of James Farm at work. It’s a sign of welcome and warmth, a mix that makes this unassuming jazz treat something of a winter getaway.

critic’s picks 255: gov’t mule, ‘the dark side of the mule,’ and grateful dead, ‘houston, texas 11-18-1972′

govtBrevity has never been in the best interest of jam bands. From the ’60s dawn of the Grateful Dead to the present day adventures of Gov’t Mule, jam-savvy live shows have essentially been lab experiments where grooves are extended, mutated and often restructured with little concern for economy. If it took 10, 20, even 30 minutes to accomplish that within the confines of a single song, so be it. It’s just that the Dead and the Mule usually kept such an exercise from disintegrating into pure indulgence.

Of late, such a philosophy has extended to live albums as well, from lavishly packaged compendiums of entire Dead tours that carry price tags in the hundreds of dollars to more modestly priced three-to-six disc sets of Mule engagements.

So it is refreshing to have new live recordings of varying vintages by both bands that keep the onstage exploration to a single disc.

Admittedly, Gov’t Mule’s Dark Side of the Mule also comes in a massive 3 CD/1 DVD package that presents you literally everything from a Halloween concert in 2008. But the single disc version, which is reviewed here, gets directly to the performance’s point of distinction – specifically, a set where the band musically masqueraded as Pink Floyd.

The title suggests a straight tribute to the 1973 Floydian classic The Dark Side of the Moon. Instead, guitarist Warren Haynes and company go tripping through all of Pink Floyd’s more storied ‘70s albums, from the obscure country-esque psychedelia of Fearless (off of 1971’s Meddle) to warhorse staples like Comfortably Numb (the crescendo tune from 1979’s The Wall).

In between, though, are some stunners that really stretch the Mule’s sound, as on the nine-part Shine on You Crazy Diamond. It augments the band’s quartet makeup with a trio of back-up vocalists, a saxophonist and considerable reliance on keyboardist Danny Louis. But Haynes still has plenty of room to roam, making Dark Side an altogether enlightening Mule escapade.

deadThe Dead’s Houston, Texas 11-18-1972 is a limited edition CD version of an even more limited edition vinyl recording released exclusively for Black Friday sales. Available only through the band’s website, the CD gives a brief second life to what had been an instant collector’s item.

It’s a grand a performance, too, providing you can make it past Donna Jean Godchaux’s pitch-deficient singing. With bassist Phil Lesh propelling the performance as much or more than guitar chieftain Jerry Garcia, the recording strolls through a jovial Bertha, tightens for a dramatic Jack Straw and then explodes during a 25 minute reading of Playing in the Band that becomes an instrumental playground for Garcia.

There you have it – two single discs packed with nearly 80 minutes of music each. That’s a lot of playing in the band for your buck.

critic’s pick 254: the blind boys of alabama and taj mahal, ‘talkin’ christmas’

talkin' christmasIf the home stretch of the holiday season is leaving you in need of a breather, then take a 40 minute time out for Talkin’ Christmas, an unpretentious but solidly sanctified summit between the Blind Boys of Alabama and Taj Mahal.

Talkin’ Christmas is about as subtle and soulful a holiday session as you will find in what has otherwise been a lean year for new Yuletide. It also deviates from the standard blueprint of many seasonal releases, including the Blind Boys’ own 2003 work, Go Tell It On the Mountain. That album was a collection of star-studded duets that, while highly appealing, made you feel as though the veteran gospel vocal group was serving as a support team for the guest list. Talkin’ Christmas sports only one high profile collaborator – longstanding blues stylist, world music journeyman and frequent Blind Boys touring mate Mahal, and even he frequently takes a back seat role within the record’s lean but tremendously complimentary instrumentation.

In fact, Mahal makes his vocal presence felt on only two songs, both new tunes penned by the Blind Boys, celebrated Stax Records songwriter William Bell and Talkin’ Christmas producer Chris Goldsmith.

The first is What Can I Do?, a sparse pop-soul spiritual that is a fine fit for the jagged expression of Mahal’s singing. The other, There’s a Reason We Call It Christmas, places Mahal aside longtime Blind Boys chieftain Jimmy Carter for a light gospel celebration accented by a discreet Caribbean rhythm.

But Mahal’s presence is felt throughout the album. When he isn’t singing, he is adding bits of guitar, ukulele, harmonica and, on a revivalist, ragtime-infused version of Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn, banjo. The song also employs one of the Blind Boys’ newest stars, falsetto singer Paul Beasley, who later guides the group’s gorgeous harmonies on No Room at the Inn. Mahal and drummer Michael Jerome provide the latter’s only instrumental accompaniment.

The last word, however, goes to Carter. He concludes the record by leading the pack through another original, Merry Christmas, which shuffles along to the second line groove set up by Jerome under a homespun yarn that is earnestly celebratory. “Hope you’re happy in your house,” Carter sings with sage-like candor, “because I’m having a ball in mine.”

Talkin’ Christmas takes its cue from I’ll Find a Way, the 2013 record that restored much of the Blind Boys’ artistic identity after a string of more duet-heavy projects. The new record, curiously, isn’t as wintry sounding as the former work. It is lighter, more unassuming and quietly straightforward, especially in its view of holiday sentiment.

In other words, Talkin’ Christmas is just sayin’.

critic’s pick 253: the velvet underground, ‘the velvetunderground – 45th anniversary deluxe edition’

velvet-underground“If you can’t be a communist and make money,” offers a 27 year old Lou Reed in the midst of the wonderful new reissue of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album, “then you have to be a rock ‘n’ roll singer – at least, in Hoboken.”

With that, The Velvet Underground – 45th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (available in two and six disc versions; the double-disc set is reviewed here) revisits the seminal New York band in yet another season of change. Recorded during the closing weeks of 1968 and released the following spring, the record is a step away from the sonic assault of 1967’s White Light/White Heat. It’s also the first VU recording cut after the exit of guitarist/violist John Cale. With Cale gone, the Velvets effectively became Reed’s band. A few of the vocal duties are shared, but Reed penned all 10 melodically engaging but thematically restless tracks and was at the helm of the album’s lighter, heavily rhythmic sound.

Of the four remarkable recordings the VU released before Reed’s departure for a solo career in 1970, The Velvet Underground is often the most overlooked. But several songs here rank among Reed’s finest work. Pale Blue Eyes, a subtle saga of a love tryst with a surprise ending, leads the list with a melodic charm as devious as its storyline. Then there is After Hours, a closing tune sung with blunt but quiet vulnerability by drummer Maureen Tucker that wears its insecurity like an open wound against a disarming, dance hall melody. But the stunner is Jesus, an open-faced plea for faith that today approximates a traditional spiritual.

Of course, the real treat behind these Deluxe Editions of the VU catalogue have been the accompanying bonus discs, which often unearth some long lost archival delicacy. The one discovered for The Velvet Underground is quite the treasure – a 70 minute set of concert recordings taken from a pair of late November 1969 concerts at The Matrix in New York.

Some of this material was issued, along with recordings from an October show that year, on a 1974 live set titled 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Here the October recordings have been jettisoned and the number of November performances have been doubled and remastered into what is perhaps the best sounding VU live album yet. Among the unreleased nuggets: a slow, woozy take of Sweet Jane (which would surface in 1970 on Reed’s final Velvets album, Loaded), a cantankerous saga about “the sorrows of the contemporary world” called I Can’t Stand It Anymore (which would be retooled for Reed’s 1971 solo debut record) and a percussive, menacing update of Heroin (from the first VU album, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico).

Filling a gap in the history of a legendary band, the reconstituted The Velvet Underground does the legacy of the actual Velvet Underground proud and then some.

critic’s pick 252: keith jarrett/charlie haden/paul motian: ‘hamburg ’72’

keith-jarrettHamburg ’72, a remarkable archival find from the vaults of ECM Records, begins innocently enough with a piano melody from Keith Jarrett that dances about with the quiet immediacy of his masterful solo improvisation recordings. Then as the rhythm section lightly falls into place, a lyrical stride emerges that recalls Jarrett’s long-running Standards Trio.

Such instances, however, serve as the proverbial calm before the storm. This isn’t a new work by the Standards Trio but a recording of a 42 year German radio broadcast at the NDR-Jazz Workshop with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian. Any pastoral suggestion is shattered by passages of free-style improvisation (with Jarrett on soprano saxophone), subtle Eastern instrumentation (with Jarrett on flute) and rich, churchy duets that place Haden in the driver’s seat (with Jarrett bashing away on tambourine). Best of all, the music winds up sounding as though it was recorded last week.

ECM chieftain Manfred Eicher began work remixing the analog sources of Hamburg ’72 in July – to be specific, the day after Haden’s death. That’s just the beginning of the coincidental timelines that run behind the scenes of this music. There is also the fact that this performance paralleled the 1972 release of Facing You, the solo piano record that began an alliance between Jarrett, Eicher and ECM that continues to this day. It also represents the trio’s only showing on the label, although it appeared several times on ECM albums augmented by saxophonist Dewey Redman as a Jarrett band often referred to as the American Quartet.

That leaves us with an invaluable timepiece of a recording. Jarrett reveals an already complete piano voice during the lovely, low stroll of Take Me Back (first released on the 1972 Columbia album Expectations and one of four Jarrett originals featured in this performance). But the tune quickly builds into a playful, rolling trade-off with Haden marked by frequent punctuations from the pianist on tambourine. It nicely approximates gospel as well as loose, uproarious swing.

The interplay builds to a 15 minute workout of Haden’s Song for Che which runs from a percussion accented solo by the composer full of elastic color to intermittent screams from Jarrett on soprano sax. Then it’s back to another merry piano outburst before returning to the same cricket-like chirping of bass and percussion that first distinguished the tune.

It’s tempting to view this music as a eulogy to Haden or, for that matter, Motian (who died in November 2011). But even though Jarrett remains the trio’s lone surviving torchbearer, the music of Hamburg ’72 is the product of a group spirit rich with a jazz urgency that is truly ageless.

critic’s pick 250: captain beefheart, sun zoom spark: 1970 to 1972

beefheartAs his avant pop journeys wound into the ‘70s, Don VanVliet – better known to non- commercially inclined rock audiences as Captain Beefheart – began to stylistically shift gear. Lauded by critics for the deliciously abstract Trout Mask Replica in 1969, he entered the decade by opening the door ever so slightly into his treacherous musical universe.

The wonderful new four-disc box set Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972 revisits that era with reissues of Beefheart’s first three albums of the ‘70s, recordings that pulled him from the rock underground to a place perilously close to the mainstream. Illuminating those years even further is a fourth disc of previously unreleased jams and alternate takes. Together, they paint a portrait of an artist alternately reaching for or purposely avoiding the sun. Listen to Sun Zoom Spark as a whole and it’s often tough to tell the difference.

Perhaps the most noteworthy attribute of the set – at least, to Beefheart die-hards – is the inclusion of 1970’s Lick My Decals Off Baby, simply because it has out of print for years. Used copies are still selling online for well over twice the price of this entire box.

Decals luxuriates in a fragmented soundscape similar to that of Trout Mask Replica with polyrhythmic riffs that approximate jazz (Bellerin’ Plain), frantically composed lines that recall the music of Beefheart mentor Frank Zappa (The Smithsonian Institute Blues) and lyrics that read like impenetrable beat poetry (I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go).

Two 1972 follow-ups The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot are where things really ease off. The compositional pace of both is slower, the lyrics are wittier and the overall feel is more accessible. The demented blues There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evenin’ Stage, which the previously-frenzied Beefheart sings in a low, belching moan, typlifies the changes.

The accessibility of Clear Spot, in particular, can be attributed to the enlistment of star Warner Brothers producer Ted Templeman, who also produced Little Feat’s Sailin’ Shoes and Randy Newman’s Sail Away that year. That may explain the echoes of both records within the Clear Spot tunes Low Yo Yo Stuff and Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles respectively.

The rarities disc (ingeniously titled Out-takes) isn’t so much illuminating as it is an intriguing companion piece to the original albums. Tunes like the jazz-pop serenade Harry Irene and an marimba-led instrumental version of Best Batch Yet wouldn’t surface in finalized form until 1978 and 1980 while an alternate take of the scrappy Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man closely approximates the Clear Spot version but with a slightly looser blues shuffle under its feet.

It all makes Sun Zoom Spark a comprehensive and ultra compelling summation of overlooked music by a true rock iconoclast.

critic’s pick: bob dylan and the band, ‘the basement tapes complete: the bootleg series, vol. 11′

bob dylanIf you thought the heavily doctored 1975 double-LP titled The Basement Tapes fully represented the fabled 1967 sessions by Bob Dylan and the band that became The Band, then you seriously need to indulge in this newest archival release from Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series. This is where you hear how elemental, joyous and richly revealing this music really was.

The Basement Tapes was the blanket title given to the roughly 100 songs Dylan cut in upstate New York with his then-touring band The Hawks (which, the following year, would become The Band). At the time, Dylan was recovering from a near fatal motorcycle crash, although historians have regularly theorized the songwriter was also seeking refuge from his skyrocketing fame.

Available in two and six disc sets (the latter was used for this review), The Basement Tapes Complete uses covers of root music staples by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker and the like (a stark reading of the Bruce Phillips classic Rock Salt and Nails is especially striking) as icebreakers for a wealth of Dylan originals.

The fidelity is far from the varnished completeness of the ’75 album. This set reverts to original reel-to-reel recordings made essentially as demos by Band keyboardist Garth Hudson. As such, we hear such forgotten gems as Tiny Montgomery, Million Dollar Bash and Lo and Behold evolve through multiple takes. Throughout, Dylan performs with his guard way, way down.

But The Basement Tapes Complete is perhaps even more revelatory in how it outlines the birth of The Band. The initial discs find Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Hudson approaching Dylan’s new tunes with caution. Then we get to a glorious recasting of One Too Many Mornings that Dylan and Manuel perform as a gorgeously battered duet.

There are also various takes of This Wheel’s on Fire and Tears of Rage – co-written by Danko and Manuel respectively, but sung here by Dylan – that would eventually find a place on The Band’s seminal 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink. Both songs are ripe with the intuitive but mischievous Americana spirit that would guide the group through much of the decade to come.

Not everything here is grade A stuff. There’s a Delta blues revision of Blowin’ in the Wind that possibly set the stage for the stylistic character assassination of his own songs that Dylan still engages in during concerts today, along with a wheezy reading of the pop standard A Fool Such As I. Both show just deep into the stylistic abyss The Basements Tapes Complete reaches.

critic’s pick 248: pink floyd, ‘the endless river’

pink floydThe Endless River is the sound of Pink Floyd in the afterlife, the ruminations of a band dead for 20 years but exhumed to reassemble part of its past as a eulogy for one of its own.

What that boils down to is this. Floyd mainstays David Gilmour and Nick Mason filtered through some 20 hours of instrumental recordings left over from the band’s last studio album, 1994’s The Division Ball. Some were loose, informal jams, others were more spacious, completed soundscapes. Such remnants had gained strong sentimental value for the two as they represented not only what became Floyd’s final music but also the last recorded collaborations between guitarist Gilmour, drummer Mason and founding Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright. The latter died in 2008.

So what The Endless River constitutes is a collection of those instrumental fragments retooled with newly cut guitar and percussion parts. The heavily ambient and predominantly instrumental results serve as a wonderful epitaph not only to Wright’s long underappreciated contributions to the Pink Floyd catalog but to the band’s entire musical odyssey.

Longtime fans should be warned, however. This isn’t The Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall or even The Division Bell revisited. In fact, the only album The Endless River at all emulates is 1975’s Wish You Were Here – in particular, the synthesized symphony Shine On You Crazy Diamond (which was also a tribute to a fallen Floydian, Syd Barrett). Throughout The Endless River, Wright’s ethereal playing serves alternately as an orchestral foundation, a moody lead and a foil for the claps of Gilmour’s guitar thunder that erupt out of the calm.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t echo other spirits of Floydian past. It does, from the psychedelic beginnings of More and A Saucerful of Secrets referenced within the church organ mimicry of Autumn ’68 to the Meddle-like bursts of keyboards and percussion that pepper Eyes to Pearls to the layered orchestral tension of Allons-Y (2) that recalls the 1987 comeback album A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

Floyd bassist/lyricist Roger Waters is again absent from these sessions. But Gilmour steps out of the instrumental shadows for the album-closing affirmation of Louder Than Words, which offers The Endless River’s only vocal turn (save for Stephen Hawking’s spoken verse on Talkin’ Hawkin’). The tune picks up right where The Division Bell left off.

Though obviously not intended as any kind of milestone, The Endless River is an assured sonic sendoff to a legendary band, a near-forgotten musical era and, most of all, a true prog rock architect and friend.

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