Friday, March 24, 2017

Friday's Rockin' Roundup - Chuck Berry Edition

It has been a long, long while since I’ve done a Rockin’ Roundup here at the Guru. However, the recent news on the passing of Chuck Berry made me consider the need for the first roundup since I don’t know when. I was toying with the idea of penning a eulogy to the late great Chuck Berry, but what could I say that hasn’t been said already? What words could I put down that others haven’t stated more eloquently? Instead, I did the research and rounded up the best tributes and memories that are out on the world-wide-web.

Chuck Berry was a true legend of real rock and roll. He paved the way for countless musicians to pick up a guitar and make their way into rock music. He inspired numerous musicians and invented a truly unique style. From Angus Youngs’ on stage duck walk copy, to The Rolling Stones endless (and fabulous) covers, Chuck Berry was a creative force that everyone wanted to emulate but very few could. He lived a long and productive life and his music will live on forever.

Here’s the Chuck Berry tributes that rocked:

The New York Times always write great obituaries and their tribute to fallen hero Chuck Berry is no exception. Part biography, part farewell, and filled with numerous facts, The New York times gave a touching remembrance on Chuck Berry.

Billboard did a nice little roundup of their own. They collected tweets and statements from musicians across the web paying their respects and saying goodbye to the master. Chuck Berry truly crossed all genres and influences countless musicians whether they were rock, rap, country, jazz, or some other type of music. It’s hard to find someone who didn’t love Chuck Berry’s music.

Time magazine put together a wonderful collage of photos from Chuck Berry’s life. There are some real classics shots included as well as some poignant photos. Pictures of him with some legends including Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger are all there. I am particularly fond of the simple photo of Chuck Berry in London wearing a three piece suit and looking very content. I hope that he was able to live most of his days that way.

Guitar World dug up the clips of John Lennon and Chuck Berry performing together on the Mike Douglas show in 1972. These videos are fabulous and definitely worth a few minutes of your time if you haven’t seen them already. And if you have seen them, they are certainly worth a re-watch.  

And finally, we have The National Review’s remembrance of Chuck Berry. It combines an articulate obituary and several video clips of musicians covering Chuck Berry songs or jamming with the master himself. If you plan to watch them all, be sure to set aside a good chunk of time. You’re going to need it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Reflections On...The Stranger

When “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” is your least favorite song on an album, it has to be a monster disc. Billy Joel’s The Stranger is one of the greatest records to ever be released in my lifetime. I’ve never compiled a personal top ten list of albums in my life, but if I did, I am sure that The Stranger would be on it. The record was released when Joel was hitting his stride as a musician and challenging himself to create the greatest music he could. It was also the breakthrough album that made him a household name.

My earliest memories of listening to The Stranger come from a time when I would have dance competitions with my sister as we listened to the album on my mother’s 8-Track stereo system. Yes, this was in the same house where I fell in love with Bob Seger’s Night Moves. My sister and I would pick an album to listen to after dinner and we had a “dance off.” The only problem was we were the only judges, so we always gave ourselves perfect scores and graded the other as far less than perfect. One of the albums we played a lot for these competitions was The Stranger. 52nd Street, Night Moves, and the soundtrack to Grease were other albums we loved to use for these dance contests.

I can remember being petrified of the album cover to The Stranger. I mean, at a young age, who wouldn’t be? Looking at it now, much older and mature in life, that album cover still freaks me out. Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, is sitting on a bed, staring at a creepy theater mask that is lying on a pillow. Full compliments to whomever thought up the cover design. It is certainly a memorable one. More important than the alarming album cover and dance competitions however was the music contained on the record. Even at a tender age, the music spoke to me.

“She’s Always a Woman” was a song that reminded me of a girl I had a huge crush on in my neighborhood. Anytime I heard that song, I thought of her immediately and went into some strange daze. A stupid grin would appear on my face and all movement would stop as I thought of my crush. Even back then young Ryo was a budding romantic. I don’t remember the girl’s name anymore, but if I close my eyes and listen to “She’s Always a Woman” I can still see her face in my mind. That’s the power of those young early crushes---they never go away. And that’s also the power of music, it can transport you back to any time in your life.

As my adolescence evolved, The Stranger was put away and forgotten for a long period of time. I wouldn’t truly revisit the album until I was in high school. Occasionally, I would hear “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” on the radio and turn up the volume, but I didn’t even purchase my own copy of The Stranger until I was a freshman.

During my sophomore year of high school, “Vienna” played a significantly powerful part in my life. It was during this time of my teenaged youth that my mother and step-father were going through an ugly divorce, my sister and I were barely speaking to one another, and I was still trying to figure out my place in the world and where exactly I fit in. I had a few friends, but I was far from the Mr. Popularity that I desperately wanted to be. To add to those complications, I had discovered girls in a big, big way. Unfortunately, girls had yet to discover me, which was evident whenever I tried to engage them. 

I grew full of uncertainty and self-doubt. A teenager with low self-esteem and lots of doubt is a volatile combination to say the least. Fortunately, I was able to see a youth therapist during this dark period. He was a fantastic counselor and able to connect with me on a deep level. It was nice to have someone to visit on a regular basis, discuss the problems I was having that I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) discuss with my parents and get positive encouragement to work through the issues I was having. Shortly after being turned down by the latest lust of my life, Jen, I grew into a deep depression. What was wrong with me that all the girls I liked didn’t reciprocate the same feelings? I was just ready to give up on life. Talking through this depression with my counselor one evening, he brought up the song “Vienna” and asked if I knew it. I did know the song, and by that time I owned my own copy on cassette, but I never really paid much attention to that particular tune. He told me to go home and play “Vienna” a few times and really listen to the lyrics.

I took his advice and listened to “Vienna” on a regular basis over the next couple of weeks. The words in the music spoke to me as they had never before. Most likely because I was actually listening to them for the first time. The opening lines of “Slow down, you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile, but then if you’re so smart, tell me why are you still so afraid?” slapped me right in the face. The later lyrics of “Slow down, you’re doing fine, you can’t be everything you want to be before your time” really drove the point home. I was trying too hard to make life happen instead of letting it develop around me. “Vienna” would be a theme song for me for the next few months and really helped to ground me and see life from a new perspective, one that I had never noticed before.

Winter breaks and summer months were fabulous as a teenager because they provided an opportunity to visit my father. He lived in Florida with my three half-brothers and I loved to visit them all. I especially enjoyed having time with my Dad. Our relationship was an odd one, mostly because my father was an alcoholic, but he did his best to love me in the way that he could. There were many a night when we would put “Only The Good Die Young” on the stereo at full blast and let it rip. We would play the song multiple times over and just jam out, singing as loud as we could as my brothers laughed at us for being so goofy. Those are some of my most cherished memories of my father and me.

“The Stranger” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” are two songs that I really got into while in high school. My high school years were the start of my journey into music discovery, as I tried to absorb different styles and types of music to find what would shape me and stay with me. In addition to the hair metal, hard rock, and modern pop hits of the day, I was discovering classic rock music. Billy Joel quickly became one of my favorite classic rock artists, and The Stranger became one of my favorite classic rock albums.

During this journey of discovery, I found “The Stranger” to be a different piece of music that struck me as brilliant. The opening piano riff followed by the lonely whistling made the song stand out. When the first verse kicks in with guitar and drums, the listener is hooked. As with most songs on the album, “The Stranger” has lyrics designed to make the listener think and analyze. As a young man with plenty of free time on my hands I liked to think and analyze. This album provided me with plenty of opportunity.

“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is one of the greatest “story” songs ever recorded. The tale of Brenda and Eddie from darling high school sweethearts to their eventual collapse is one that most failed young lovers can relate to. It is a fantastic song that stands the test of time. Even today, young listeners could relate to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and clearly see the picture Billy Joel painted in the song. Over 40 years later, this song still holds up.

Whenever I am feeling down, or just uncertain, I find myself revisiting this record. The Stranger seems to take me back to a safer place in my life. Even though I was young and full of drama and chaos, there are grand memories there. The Stranger helps to remind me what I’ve been through and overcome and serves as a confidence builder about what is yet to come. Having been through so much in life already, I am weathered and can handle anything that comes my way. And if I need to center myself, just for a moment, I can put this album on and ease myself back to calm. It’s always been an important record to me. From dance competitions, to young crushes, to centering and grounding myself, The Stranger has been a constant in my life. I imagine that it will continue to be so even well into my golden years.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Best of Marc Almond and Soft Cell to Release on April 14th

As a youngster growing up in Southport, Merseyside, Marc Almond was immersed in the magical world of the 3-minute single. Tuning in to Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg and a weekly fix of Top Of The Pops acted as catalysts for the aspiring singer's dreams and ambitions. The 45-rpm single was king, and Marc Almond worshiped at its throne. Marc had always aspired to become a great singles artist; he wanted to follow in the footsteps of two of his heroes, David Bowie and Scott Walker in turning the single into an art form. He achieved exactly that when Tainted Love rocketed to the top of the UK chart in September 1981 (and became the biggest selling single of the year), commencing a singles chart love affair that has played a huge part in Marc's 40 + year career and has seen him shift in excess of 30 million sales.

Now that impressive singles career is celebrated on April 14th  with the UMe release of Hits And Pieces - The Best Of Marc Almond And Soft Cell, which comes available as a 2 CD disc or single CD digital download and traces Almond's singles career from Soft Cell through to his solo work and collaborations. Almond has always excelled at recording superb singles - he has secured a body of work that encompasses truly outstanding originals, covers and duets. Highlights of Hits And Pieces include "Tainted Love," "What!," "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," the Number One reaching Gene Pitney duet "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart," his interpretation of Scott Walker's cover of Jacques Brel's "Jacky" with its epic kitchen sink production from Trevor Horn, a cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" with Bronski Beat, Melancholy Rose and Ruby Red from the Mother Fist album, a Tony Visconti produced nugget "The Dancing Marquis," last year’s superb "The Velvet Trail," the glam stomper "Variete'" and another unforgettable cover in the form of "The Days Of Pearly Spencer." 

To complete the package is the newest track on this compilation: the previously unreleased "A Kind Of Love," three effortlessly breezy minutes that hint at Almond's past - the "light summery psychedelic sounds" on that mid-60s transistor radio, the Northern soul scene that inspired Soft Cell to cover "Tainted Love" and "What!" - without really sounding much like anything Marc Almond has recorded before. A Kind Of Love was co-written and produced by Chris Braide, a man with excellent pop credentials having worked with Beyonce, Sia, Lana Del Rey and Trevor Horn. A Kind Of Love is Marc Almond the singles artist showing once again how to turn 3 and a half minutes into aural gold.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Concert Review: Pop Evil - February 18, 2017

I could not have chosen a better concert to start my 2017 live music experience! On an unseasonably warm February night I headed to the Starland Ballroom in Sayervillle, New Jersey, to see Pop Evil for the first time in almost 4 years. The last time I saw the band live was when they opened for Three Days Grace before Onyx had even been released. A lot has changed for this band in those 4 years, most of it for the better.

This show was originally billed as Pop Evil with special guests Red Sun Rising and Badflower. Yet, for some reason still unknown to me, there was a last minute change and Red Sun Rising was not on the bill. Badflower was moved up to the middle act, and local band Kid Felix were tapped to be the openers. Officially, Red Sun Rising posted on their Facebook page that due to reasons beyond their control, they are no longer on the Pop Evil tour. Unofficially, there is speculation that the band dissed Pop Evil, insinuating that they could not sing, and that got them kicked off the tour. If that’s true, how stupid can you be? Sorry (not sorry) Red Sun Rising, but no one knows who you are yet, you should be thankful that Pop Evil took you on tour with them.

Kid Felix opened the night at the Starland Ballroom. They are a local, south jersey band that I had never heard of before. I had zero expectations for their set, but as always, I kept an open mind and waited to see what they had to show me. What they showed me was simply magnificent. Their set time was limited, but they used it to their advantage. Kid Felix was terrific on stage, performing solid original music that was catchy and impressive. I was also surprised by the number of people that showed up to see their set. Just before Kid Felix took the stage, the Starland Ballroom was 75% full. For an opening act, it’s usually 25% full, if that. It was nice to see so many rockers come out and give support to Kid Felix.

Badflower was the second act and I have to say they just weren’t for me. There were moments when I was hopeful that this band would be decent and I would find a song or two that I could like, but it never happened. The lead singer/guitarist was an odd little man that looked borderline psycho. I’m sure the younger folks in the crowd thought that was really cool, but that’s never been for me. I like positivity and inspiration in my musical messages. Badflower just gave me anger, whining, and noise.

Shortly after Badflower finished their set it was time for the headliners to grace the stage. As I mentioned, it had been a while since I last saw Pop Evil live and I was looking forward to their show. The stage set was very cool with a red brick wall, a chain link fence, and a cardboard sign painted in black that read “Rock N Roll.” I wasn’t used to seeing Pop Evil with any kind of stage (as they had always been the opening act), so this was intriguing.

The house lights went dark and a man in a hoodie and a bandana covering his face like a villain in an old western movie walked out. He walked from the top of the stage to the cardboard sign with a can of red spray paint in his hand. He sprayed painted the word “No” over “Rock N Roll” and the crowd gave a disapproving boo. Then he added a W to the word “No” so the sign read “Rock N Roll Now,” which is the name of the tour. The masked figure pulled his bandana off and flipped his hood back and of course it was Leigh Kakaty. The band then came out on stage and kicked into “Trenches.”

The show was not sold out prior to the night of the concert, and arriving early, I was able to get a ticket with no trouble at all. However, by the time Pop Evil took the stage it was clear that the show had sold out (or was very close to it). The Starland was packed for Pop Evil’s performance. Filled all the way through with loud New Jersey rock fans that wanted to see an amazing night of music. Pop Evil was there to deliver. “Trenches” was followed by “Last Man Standing,” a quick cover of “Eye of the Tiger,” the ellipsis song “…” and “Ways To Get High.” It was a great way to get the night going. I had not realized how beloved “Ways To Get High” was. The crowd roared when the first notes hit and then sang every word back to the band. And while it is far from my favorite Pop Evil song, I grew a stronger appreciation for the song after seeing it live.

If you’ve read any of my other reviews on this band then you know how much I appreciate them as a live act and how I think they are flat out amazing in concert. Having now seen them as headliners and for the first time in almost 4 years, I can only say that their live show has gone from great to spectacular. The way they commanded the crowd, the stage presence that they had, and their ability to rock the club was flawless. This band could easily be headlining arenas with their material and ability. Pop Evil is truly one of the best live acts out there. Their energy is infectious and the New Jersey crowd clearly loved the band.

Leigh talked a lot about his love for New Jersey and his appreciation for how much we care about the band, but that may have been the traditional lead singer language that he will repeat the next night to the next crowd. I want to believe that he really does have a soft spot for New Jersey and that we really are the greatest crowd, but that’s my New Jersey bias kicking in.

Leigh did reminisce on the first time the band played the Starland Ballroom as an opening act. He talked about how they played to approximately 20 people and 2 of them were his parents. That took me back to the first time I saw the band perform live as openers for Theory of a Deadman. I remember not even wanting to go in to see the opening act, but my wise friend Bobby talked me into it. I am so glad that he did, because I fell in love with the band that night and I haven’t looked back since.

The band performed “Purple” for what they said was the first time in over a year. They stated that they wanted to do something special for this special New Jersey crowd and I was delighted to hear the song. “Purple” has always been one of my favorite Pop Evil songs and it was terrific live.

Watching Pop Evil perform as headliners made me very happy. Not only because the show was so awesome, but because the band was doing so well and they looked so happy. Having watched and followed Pop Evil since their first album when they were an opening act performing to a small number of people and then slowly converting them to fans one member at a time, it was nice to see them at such a level of success. I’ve always believed in this band and it’s so good to see them doing so well. It’s akin to watching your children grow up. Pop Evil has been through a lot over the years and they still come out on top.

New drummer Hayley Cramer was a delight behind the drum kit. And while I miss Chachi Riot and his animal like drum playing, Hayley is a fantastic drummer in her own right and fits into the band well. She can also play the keyboards, as was made evident during the first Encore. Leigh and Hayley came out on stage together and played a slowed down version of “Beautiful.” It was a nice arrangement for the song and it was neat seeing Leigh sing it to only the keyboard playing in the background. 

I am somewhere in that photo all the way toward the back of the crowd.
The band would come out for a second encore which consisted of “Footsteps” and “Take It All.” Toward the end of “Footsteps” Leigh stopped the song and asked the crowd if it was all right if he came down to them. Of course they were fine with that! Leigh walked down into the crowd and asked everyone to crouch down low. He had the whole ballroom crouch low and he did so as well. He then talked about how making music was a process that started with great friends getting together working out songs. He wanted us to share that experience, the way that songs began. He then had us all sing the end of “Footsteps” together acapella. It sounded fantastic! Leigh thanked us for being fans and friends and then jumped back onto the stage for the last song of the night.

“Take It All” was jaw dropping and even though there are other candidates for the title, I think this will become Pop Evil’s signature song. It is a perfect ender, full of high energy and beloved by the crowd. Every person was screaming it back to the band to end the night.

And when it was all over, I was sweaty, I couldn’t hear, and it was hard to speak. But it was absolutely worth it. Pop Evil has grown into a force to be reckoned with and it’s only a matter of time before they are performing arenas across the United States and forcing me to see them from the nosebleed sections. I know it will be worth it though and I’ll just be happy to see the band live again.

Last Man Standing
Eye Of The Tiger
Ways To Get High
Ghost Of Muskegen
Torn To Pieces
Sick Sense
Boss’ Daughter
Deal With The Devil
Monster You Made
If Only For Now
100 In A 55
Beautiful (just Leigh and Hayley)
Second Encore
Take It All