Bobby Keys, 1943-2014

bobby keys 2

Bobby Keys

The secret of any enduring art form – or any commercial enterprise, for that matter – is teamwork. Fashion that perhaps clichéd philosophy within a rock ’n’ roll context – in particular, the 50 year odyssey of The Rolling Stones – and you will find a band with pioneering, resourceful members but also a support team of expert players and producers. Aside from the great pianist Ian Stewart, who died in 1985, there was no more crucial sideman to the success of the Stones than tenor saxophonist Bobby Keys, who died yesterday at age 70.

Keys and the Stones were kindred spirits from different shores. Where the Stones were British ambassadors bred on American R&B, Keys was the real thing – a wildfire Texas sax ace who lived as uproariously as he played. The Stones would go on to record with a number of exemplary saxophonists over the decades. British vet Mel Collins was awarded the classic groove solo on Miss You. The legendary American jazz colossus Sonny Rollins played the poetic concluding solo on Waiting on a Friend. But the really filthy sax breaks that defined records made during the Stones’ golden era (1969-72) all belonged to Keys.

The psycho roots party breakdown distinguishing Rip This Joint? The boozy sing-a-long solo of Sweet Virginia? The simmering jam instigation during Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? The pressure cooker blast at the heart of Live With Me? Those were all diamond creations of Keys and integral components within the wonderfully debauched tenor of those songs.

And then there was Brown Sugar, a tune with such a perfectly crafted yet completely intuitive solo that it sounded like a composed segment of the song. Keys would play the solo note for note, tour after tour with the Stones until earlier this year when declining health forced the saxophonist to bow out of a series of Australian concerts by the band.

Keys’ dossier outside of the Stones was ridiculous. Among the giants he has played with: The Who, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Warren Zevon, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, John Hiatt, Donovan, Humble Pie and The Faces. But my favorite recording of Keys apart from the Stones remains a scalding concert record with fellow Texan Joe Ely called Live Chicago 1987 (which, perhaps fittingly, wasn’t released until 2009). Hearing Ely at his wildest with Keys ripping through Musta Notta Gotta Lotta, the epic Letter to L.A. and a roadhouse savvy Oh Boy (the classic by Buddy Holly, yet another Texas giant) is pure joy.

But for an immediate taste of Keys’ rock ‘n’ roll bravado, dig out the Stones’ still-extraordinary Exile on Main St. His playing smothers the band’s loosest, soul-marinated tunes like barbeque sauce – sauce smoked in Lone Star country, of course.

in performance: acoustic jam 2014

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hunter hayes performing at the opera house last night as part of acoustic jam 2014. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

“If you’re here tonight with someone you’re wildly in love with, let them know,” said Hunter Hayes, one of the 12 country artists showcased last night at the Opera House for the sold-out Acoustic Jam 2014.

That, of course, opened the floodgates for a sizeable, vocal segment of the female contingency on hand to hurl affections – well, verbal ones, at least – directly at the popular 23 year old singer as he launched into a poppish slice of romantic confession called Wanted. By the time the song was over, a marriage proposal was offered and accepted within the audience.

“Congratulations, Hunter,” said baritone voiced Josh Turner, another Acoustic Jam artist seated directly right of Hayes. “One of your fans is no longer single.”

Such was the mood that surrounded one of the most refreshing locally staged country music presentations in years. Such a distinction was due as much to the show’s design as anything else. The dozen artists performed in groups – or, dare we say it in the heart of Wildcat Country, platoons – of four with one-to-three backup players (usually guitarists) to assist. Aside from a few modestly utilized electric keyboards, the instrumentation lived up to the program’s name and operated within lean acoustic frameworks.

That meant all the production varnish applied to contemporary country recordings was stripped away. There was no autotuning, no lip synching and no arena pageantry. There also wasn’t a single performer that didn’t sound better as a result.

Each artist played three songs round-robin style. That made everyone, in essence, a co-billed act. Acoustic Jam was also a benefit concert, netting the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital $120,000.

The first wave centered mostly on new talent: the teen female duo Maddie & Tae, “silent” Sugarland partner Kristian Bush, singer Tyler Farr (in his third Lexington performance in 16 months) and The Voice champion Danielle Bradbery.

Farr was the artist that jump-started this set after a somewhat complacent opening with the wistful Whiskey in My Water. But Maddie & Tae later offered a surprisingly blunt ode about the roles of women in the Nashville work place (Girl in a Country Song) while Bush turned the Sugarland hit Baby Girl into a starkly paternal love song. Bradbery proved a capable but somewhat stymied vocalist during Heart of Dixie. She revealed abundant technical skill but little artistic identity.

Next up was a pack that included two top Central Kentucky country music exports, Montgomery Gentry and John Michael Montgomery, along with young buck stars Sam Hunt and Scotty McCreery.

The duo of Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry probably had to make the biggest adjustment to the acoustic setting, but the rockish, homey vibe of My Town lost nothing minus the voltage. John Michael, the elder Montgomery brother, wound up as a comparative traditionalist with his 2004 hit Letters From Home taking on a deeper, almost sage-like luster. McCreery was surprisingly confident onstage as he celebrated the casual, summery charm of Feelin’ It. Hunt was the distinctive one, though. A curious hybrid of vintage soul crooner and’90s alterative popster, he made his current single Take Your Time sound like a curious but appealing cross between Bobby Womack and Gin Blossoms.

Hayes, Turner, David Nail and Joe Nichols closed out the evening with what was by far the loosest of the three sets.

Nail was humbly proficient in delivering the understated cool of Red Light, Nichols was the open and obvious reveler during Hard to Be Cool and Hayes did his best to play unassuming heartthrob for I Want Crazy. But bettering them all was the solemn tradition stride Turner summoned for the masterful Long Black Train, a work of Johnny Cash-level spirituality, reflection and drama. Of the 36 songs offered by the 12 artists last night, Long Black Train was the one that most decidedly went the distance.

Click here to view Rich Copley’s Acoustic Jam 2014 photo gallery.

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.

head’s up on korn

Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu

Reggie “Fiedy” Arvizu of Korn. Photo by Arthur Mola, Invision/AP.

Two decades into a career that has brought a new generational fanbase to a wholly reconfigured brand of metal music, the members of Korn are still scratching their heads.

“I think it’s just one of those things that we could try to figure out and understand,” said the band’s bassist and co-founder Reggie “Fieldy” Arvizu. “But it just doesn’t make sense. I don’t know how you can keep making so many songs out of such a simple style. It just doesn’t make sense to me at all. I don’t get it. Music is weird, man. That’s all I can say.”

Simple, perhaps. But inserting modest levels of groove and melody in the usual metal crunch made Korn one of the initial “nu metal” bands of the ‘90s. That it rose to prominence alongside a growing alternative music scene didn’t hurt either. That, along with a reputation as a ferocious live act, made Korn’s self-titled 1994 debut album a monster hit that spawned double platinum sales and a quartet of hit singles led by the guitar-centric Blind.

“We are so limited in what we do that we’re kind of forced to be super creative. So these really cool tricks that come out in our songs are because we’re forced to make the music cool because we’re not that good.”

Korn’s current placement on the current Prepare for Hell Tour with longtime ally Slipknot cements a restoration of sorts for the band. While its music has never gone out of favor (its 2012 album The Paradigm Shift entered the all genre Billboard 200 chart at No. 8), Korn is coming off its first full year with founding guitarist Brian “Head” Welch back in the ranks. Welch left Korn in 2004 to deal with mounting substance additions as well as a blooming solo career. Several subsequent attempts to reunite him with the band fell through until Arvizu intervened.

“Over the years, we tried to have it happen a few times and it just didn’t line up or work out. Then Head just happened to show up at one of these concerts we were doing. So we talked a little bit. The next thing you know, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to go watch your set, but it’s going to be weird because I’m used to being onstage with you guys.’ So as we were walking over to the stage, I said, ‘How about you do the last three songs with us. He said,’What? Are you crazy? I could maybe do Blind.’ When we got to the stage, John (Korn vocalist Jonathan Davis) and Munky (co-guitarist James “Munky” Shaffer) were there. I was going, ‘Hey, Head is going to do Blind with us tonight.’ And that’s how it happened. We did it. Everything felt good and it just took off from there.

“Now the spirit within the band is better than ever because I think everybody is finally at an age where they know their place and their role. With Head coming back, we wanted to do something that was totally just about who we were and what Korn was. That was our mindset in making The Paradigm Shift. We weren’t going, ‘Well, what role does Head play and Munkey play? Where’s my role? Everybody was stepping into what they do instead of trying to fill a spot for someone else. So we just took our positions and it turned out exactly the way we wanted.”

Following the conclusion of the Prepare for Hell Tour in early December, Korn will break for the winter and hit the road again in March for a more proper 20th anniversary tour that will have the band performing the 1994 Korn album in its entirety at every show. The tour is expected to last into 2016.

“The secret for people to understand in doing this is that the main thing you’ve got to do is show-up. We never really think about our careers too much. We just grab hold of the moment.”

Slipknot, Korn and King 810 perform at 7 p.m. Nov.22 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $38.50-$65. Call: (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

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.

in performance: frode gjerstad trio with steve swell

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frode gjerstad.

The music sounded inconspicuous enough at first with Frode Gjerstad and Steve Swell squaring off in a light but lovingly fussy dialogue on alto saxophone and trombone, respectively. But the whispery exchange proved to be a prelude of sorts for the melee to come – specifically, an improvisational suite that tested the stamina as well as the musical resources of Gjestad and his all Norwegian trio along with veteran New Jersey bandleader and improviser Swell. The collective results, which clocked in at just under an hour, made up the bulk of last night’s vigorous but surprisingly intimate Outside the Spotlight performance at Mecca.

Gjerstad and Swell are pros at this kind of mischief and last night was no exception. Their playing either complimented the performance cunning of the other or fed into the immediacy of the entire ensemble. Part of the latter involved finding a foil among the other two players. In drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, Gjerstad and Swell had an accomplice that was physically and intuitively tireless. A veteran of many OTS shows over the last 12 years, Nilssen-Love proved again to be a monster player. He summoned a percussive firestorm of speed and agility under Gjerstad’s fragments of bop and blues on alto sax early into the suite. But Nilssen-Love was just as resourceful during a playful duet where Gjerstad switched to clarinet.

Swell was as fascinating to watch as he was to listen to. Early into the extended improv, he arched his back and tilted the trombone so low that it nearly swept the floor, all while summoning a squall line of short, brassy outbursts. But he also found room for a more guttural exchange during a brief duet with bassist Jon Rue Strom.

But the there were also several instances where all four players exploded into improvisational glee simultaneously. While all seemed to speak for themselves, their ferocious playing also enforced an ensemble spirit that remained vital even as the music began to splinter into solo and duo passages.

Similarly, the evening’s second and final improv – a five minute reverie dubbed “a little goodnight song” by Gjerstad – was as slow, spacious and intimate as the initial centerpiece suite was a lesson in exhaustive jazz dynamics.

go nordic!

frodeOkay, we know asking you out on a Monday night isn’t exactly an enticing proposition, especially with the rather intrusive season premiere of the Polar Vortex at hand. Nonetheless, The Musical Box urges you to brave the snow and cold tonight by heading to the Mecca studio on 948 Manchester to help the Outside the Spotlight Series celebrate its 12th anniversary with a 8 p.m. return performance by the Frode Gjerstad Trio.

A veteran alto saxophonist and clarinetist who has collaborated with such vanguard jazz renegades as Peter Brotzmann, William Parker, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Sabir Mateen and many others, Gjerstad will be fronting his longstanding all-Norwegian trio that includes frequent OTS guest Paal Nilseen-Love on drums and Jon Rune Strom on acoustic bass. For this outing, the Gjerstad Trio will also sport a special guest in trombonist Steve Swell, who will be making his first OTS appearance in close to eight years.

The Gjerstad Trio is something of a pressure cooker where improvisatory elements are hatched before blooming into blasts of intense trio interplay. While the final explosive summit of their music is something to behold, the real magic comes within the dynamics revealed as the band works its way from subtle, sparsely outlined introductions into massive anarchical crescendos.

The addition of Swell – whose extensive jazz history includes recordings and/or tours with Ken Vandermark’s Resonance Ensemble, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne, among others – should broaden the Gjerstad Trio’s already mighty free jazz vocabulary even further.

If you’re an OTS regular, you know how special these performances can be and the vital role they play in a balanced local music scene. Having them staged within the up close and intimate setting Mecca offers makes the shows all the more inviting.

If you haven’t yet taken in an OTS concert, we recommend the Gjerstad Trio’s performance wholeheartedly. If the music you hear seems new and foreign, it is. This is jazz built from scratch the instant you hear it. The music doesn’t come with expected melody lines or accessible lyricism, but it drives and grooves in its own immediate way. It is the sound of instant, undeniable art created without preconception.

So if the Arctic blast that settling around Lexington has you down, then take in the infinitely hipper warm front that’s about to roll in from Norway.

Time go Nordic, y’all.

in performance: diego garcia/bear medicine

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diego garcia.

How much you bought into last night’s performance by Diego Garcia depends on how deeply you view popular music as a means of pure of romantic expression, or at least as an intention of that expression.

A Detroit native of Argentine parents, Garcia engaged in songs drawn largely from two albums that explored the aftermath of love as obsessively fueled heartbreak (2011’s Laura) and in stages of reconciliation and rebirth (2013’s Paradise). What that boiled down was music that danced a fine line between sentimentality and self pity.

Given his parentage, it wasn’t surprising to hear elements of Spanish balladry surface during the performance, from the whispery nature of Garcia’s singing during the set-opening Roses and Wine (which recalled the summery vocals of Josh Rouse) to the purposely confessional nature of songs like Separate Lives.

While there was no denying the emotive impact of Garcia’s compositions, it was the lead guitar work of accompanist and Buenos Aires native Zeke Zima that carried the evening. From the flamenco-like flourishes during a cover of the Kinks’ Strange Effect to the bossa nova rhythms that dressed Donde Estas to the crisp, pop-flavored melody that drove Garcia’s most affirmative tune She Dances (an ode to his daughter), Zima’s playing was as unassuming and exact as Garcia’s songs were obvious in their need to express vulnerability.

Frankly, the 40 minute opening set by Lexington’s own Bear Medicine was as engaging as anything offered by the headliners. There also, though, the narratives got a little skittish, especially during the burrowing bugs saga Infestation. But there was so much stylistically to be thrilled by, including folk accents drawn around flute, cello, keyboards, guitar and drums that were alternately rockish and reserved. All of those sounds and ideas came into play during the mammoth instrumental Big Chief.

Bear Medicine cellist Seth Murphy also supplied keen and presumably unrehearsed support for two songs during Garcia’s hour long set – Nothing to Hide and You Were Never There.

It was also cool to again experience a performance in the Singletary’s upstairs recital hall – a vastly more intimate space the main 1,500 seat concert hall. Given the folkish foundation of both acts and the especially conversational tone of Garcia’s set, the recital hall proved a fine fit for the night.

in performance: jason marsalis vibes quartet

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jason marsalis.

The most immediately arresting aspect of last night’s performance by Jason Marsalis at the Phelps-Stokes Auditorium of Berea College was the profoundly cool sound he summoned from the instrument before him. Known through area concerts over the past two decades as a drummer (including a 2005 show on this very stage), the youngest sibling of New Orleans’ famed Marsalis family favored the vibraphone and the melodically lustrous but sonically reserved tone it conjured.

On the opening bars of Blues Can Be Abstract, Too, the vibraphone’s notes hung liked chilled colors in the air that grew more expansive when Marsalis chose to add pedal induced sustain. The tune served as a beautiful introduction not only to the instrument but to what the bandleader chose to do with it.

Fronting what he aptly calls his Vibes Quartet, Marsalis flirted with jazz tradition and tried out more than a few progressive ideas. But that hardly translated into the big band majesty Lionel Ham\pton brought to the instrument from the 1930s onward or the scholarly combo improvisations defined a generation later by Gary Burton. Aside from a few fleeting passages where Burton’s innovations in playing the vibes with four mallets instead of the usual two surfaced, Marsalis followed his own muses, including a few from his native New Orleans.

On Blues for Now, one of eight com positions performed from the Vibes Quartet’s second and newest album, The 21st Century Trad Band, a rugged Marsalis solo on the vibes led into a tight trio run instigated by pianist Austin Johnson. The music became noticeably more playful during the checklist of conflicting grooves that set the stage for The Man with Two Left Feet and its jovial percussive breakdown from drummer David Porter. And for pure Southern melody, nothing beat the curiously titled 18th Letter of Silence where a sunny vibes stride by Marsalis quickly served as a contrast to the dynamics of his rhythm section. Johnson got the lion’s share of the solo spotlight but Potter and bassist Will Goble drove the tune.

Ultim ately, it was the show-closing title composition to The 21st Century Trad Band that defined the performance with a mash-up of familiar melodies (When the Saints Go Marching In was the most detectable), twisted bits of swing and some furious syncopation. The elements may have been rooted in the past but the end results brought the music into the here and now with the tonal splendor of the vibes leading the charge.

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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