The Marsalis Family: Music Redeems

stars:
RIYL: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Harry Connick Jr.

The first family of New Orleans jazz gathered for a special concert last year at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and thank goodness they recorded it for release. There is far too little collaboration in this clan – patriarch Ellis on piano, Wynton on trumpet, Branford on sax, Delfeayo on trombone and youngest brother Jason on drums. They’re all world-renowned musicians and hearing them together is something special. This CD also makes a great gift for any jazz fan – it’s a historic gathering of the Marsalis clan, including stories and anecdotes about growing up in New Orleans. The proceeds also go to educational programming at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, “the heart of the New Orleans Habitat Musicians’ Village.” The project was conceived in 2005 by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. (who also guests in this performance) in partnership with New Orleans Habitat for Humanity following Hurricane Katrina.

The band opens with Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” featuring an up-tempo walking bass line from the bassist Eric Revis, some dynamic whistling melodies from Jason and a great piano solo from Ellis.
Wynton and Branford both speak afterward about growing up, with Branford noting how Ellis’ breakthrough song “Monkey Puzzle” (written by James Black) was almost like a cartoon theme song to the kids. The classic song receives an eight-minute treatment, with great solos all around and some stellar work by Jason on the vibes.

A pair of Ellis-penned tunes follow. “After” is an elegant solo piano song, and then “Syndrome,” an old school piano-based tune that brings in the rest of the band with some smooth unison horn lines. Harry Connick Jr., then joins the ensemble for “Sweet Georgia Brown,” where sparks fly on sensational dueling pianos between Connick and Ellis. Another peak occurs with a reading of Thelonious Monk’s “Teo,” which oozes the jazzy jazz that comes from such great horn players. There’s also another superb piano solo, followed by a succession of stylish horn solos that are like a jazz playbook.

Ellis Marsalis III then delivers a poignant spoken word poem written just for the occasion to honor his father, “The Man and the Ocean.” A nearly 10-minute version of Jason’s “At the House in Da Pocket” follows and it’s a magic track, with the horns seeming to hold an animated conversation while the other instruments vamp out behind. The Marsalis family chemistry really starts flowing here and it’s only a shame that this track basically ends the set instead of setting the stage for more. But in classic New Orleans fashion, the group apparently exits through the audience playing a rousing version of the traditional song, “The 2nd Line.”

This entire performance will make you want to book travel to New Orleans at your nearest convenience. If you can’t make it in person, the next best thing may be streaming local radio station WWOZ, without a doubt one of the greatest and most diverse stations on the planet. (Marsalis Music 2010)

Depeche Mode: Tour of the Universe 20/21.11.09


RIYL: motherfucking Depeche Mode

On Pack Up the Plantation, the 1985 live album by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the band slowly eases its way into “Breakdown.” Petty sings the first line “It’s all right if you love me” just above a whisper, at which point the crowd takes over, singing all the way through the first chorus and even splitting vocal duties between the lead vocal and the “Breakdoooooooown!” backing vocals. It’s exhilarating to listen to, because you can feel the rush the audience felt by getting the chance to be the star. After a few beats, Petty humbly tells the crowd, “You’re gonna put me out of a job.”

Which brings us to today’s lesson. Letting the audience sing part of one song is one thing; forcing them to sing multiple songs is another.

It made sense that Depeche Mode would want to document their 2009 world tour. They were playing to gigantic crowds, and they hadn’t released a live album since 1993′s Songs of Faith and Devotion Live. With four albums of new material to showcase – though they chose to only play songs from three, skipping 2001′s Exciter entirely – it was time to run the tape recorders once again. Tour of the Universe 20/21.11.09 documents two shows the band played before what looks like the entire population of Barcelona, and you can see why the crowds were so excited. Despite front-loading the set with what feels like half of the band’s most recent album, Sounds of the Universe, Depeche pulled out some gems for this tour, including a whopping four songs from fan favorite Black Celebration. They also had a live drummer and principal songwriter Martin Gore playing guitar almost exclusively during the shows. What’s not to love?

Dave Gahan, that’s what. He’s too busy playing rock star to actually sing the damn songs. Gahan leaves it to the audience to sing far too much – and sometimes makes them sing the chorus twice in the same song – and low-range vocal melodies, even when sung by tens of thousands, cannot stand up to the sound the band is putting out. When the band launches into “A Question of Time,” the crowd is reaching a fever pitch, so when Gahan has them sing the chorus the first time, they’re only happy to oblige. When he forces them to do it a second time, the response is nowhere near as enthusiastic, and you can actually hear the crowd deflating. If you have cameras rolling, and they just captured you killing the crowd’s buzz while you fed your ego, would you really test the crowd’s patience again?

Sadly, the answer is yes…twice. Gahan does it again on “Policy of Truth” and – this is the unforgivable one – “Enjoy the Silence,” the band’s biggest hit. The arrangement of the song is spectacular, with the band launching into a fantastic breakdown, but Gahan will not sing the chorus. Now, this is one thing to watch in person – which we did, because he did the exact same thing when the band played Lollapalooza last year – but it’s another altogether to watch on a DVD, where you’ll be reaching for the Fast Forward button even on your favorite songs. It’s even worse onthe CD, where it just sounds like a karaoke track and the singer is too drunk to read the lyrics on the Teleprompter. If there is one show where Dave should have sucked it up and sung the damn songs, this is the one.

Then there is the matter of their drummer Christian Eigner. His playing is fine, but his snare drum is positively flat, as if the band is too afraid to sound like the rock band they’re pretending to be. They would have been better off giving the bottom end the thump that a live setting demands. As it is, the drum tracks from Music for the Masses – a 23-year-old album – sound harder than what Eigner plays here. The direction of the show is spotty, too, spending far too much time out of focus or, worse, focused on the fans recording the show on their phones (worst, trend, ever).

This was a golden opportunity to showcase Depeche Mode’s staying power and their status as godfathers of electronic music, but Tour of the Universe, despite a great set list and solid performances (when Gahan deigns to sing, anyway), does not cut it. It’s one of those things where you simply had to be there to get the full effect of the experience. If Dave had sung all of the damn songs, this set would be essential. As it is, it’s diehards-only material.(Capitol 2010)

Depeche Mode MySpace page
Click to buy Tour of the Universe from Amazon

David Bowie: Station to Station (Special/Deluxe Editions)


RIYL: David Bowie, cocaine

Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station is one of his many masterpieces. It also serves as proof that one can not only function, but excel, on nothing but cocaine, milk and hot peppers, which was Bowie’s alleged diet at the time. One suspects the recording sessions for Station to Station would be legendary if anyone could remember them. The classic rumor being that Bowie was so high during the time that the entire year is blacked out from his memory.

Even with all the craziness that surrounds the record, Station to Station has kind of fallen to the wayside since its original release, eclipsed by both the Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes” and The Lodger) and his magnum opus of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). However, now it’s getting another chance in the limelight with a new special edition to commemorate…well nothing, aside from how awesome it is.

The new remaster is excellent, and does not fall prey to the Loudness Wars. Every snare is crisp and bass line clear. And thank God, because all six tracks on Station to Station are undeniable classics. The surreal imagery of the title track and ode to a heroin nightmare that is “TVC15″; the genuine love/lust of “Stay” and darkly comic “love” of “Golden Years”; the heartfelt balladeering of “Wild Is the Wind” and “Word on a Wing.” It’s all classic, it all sounds great, and it’s all a must-have.

If you already own Station To Station and need more than a new transfer in order to be persuaded to make a repurchase, the special edition reissue also includes an entire live concert from the Nassau Colosseum in 1976. If Bowie really was doped out of his brain during the late ’70s, it didn’t seem to affect his ability to perform here. He’s on fire at this show, and is probably the second-best Bowie live recording next to the Live at Santa Monica ’72 album. It alone more than justifies the double-dip.

But if you really want to justify the double-dip (and have 150-some bucks to spend), then go nuts and get the deluxe edition. This thing is insane. Not only does it include the remastered edition of the album and the concert on both CD and vinyl, but it also includes an entirely different master of the album from 1985 (which, in all honestly, sounds pretty much identical to the new remaster) and another CD with the single edits of every song on the album, save “Wild Is The Wind.” There’s also another disc, a DVD this time, that features even more mixes of the album, some in surround sound. All that goodness is packed in an beautiful box that includes new linear notes by Cameron Crowe, extensive information about the album itself, reproduced press and fan club materials and much, much more. Pretty much the only thing it’s missing is a bag of blow. (EMI 2010)

David Bowie MySpace Page

The Airborne Toxic Event: All I Ever Wanted: Live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall

Note: This is a review of the 90-minute documentary film only. At press time, we did not have access to the CD or the DVD of the entire show. Though we hope to, soon.

It’s still baffling to us that Pitchfork would go so far out of their way to bash a band like the Airborne Toxic Event – they gave the band’s eponymous debut album, which we loved, a scathing 1.6 on their 10-point scale – and after watching “All I Ever Wanted: Live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall,” the insult seems twice as offensive. They seem like geniunely good, extremely gracious people, and the way they got the community involved in their landmark show was deeply touching. A local high school band plays on “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” and a raucous cover of the Ramones’ “Do You Remember Rock ‘n Roll Radio?,” while a school girl’s choir jumps in for a rousing, kitchen-sink version of “Missy.” The band sounds great – the high school band misses a few notes, but hey, they’re kids – and they look like they’re having the time of their lives both performing and recording this show.

If there is one problem with the movie, it’s that it goes for long stretches without any music, and when they do include music, they opt for a cover version (the Ramones, Magnetic Fields, Q Lazzarus) as often as they show them playing one of their own songs. The covers are cute, but the movie could have used more original material. The set includes a separate DVD of the entire show, of course, but if we’re having our music documented for all eternity, we’re going to make sure the majority of the footage consists of original material, not someone else’s. But then again, that’s a very Mikel Jollett thing to do, favoring someone else’s songs over his own. (Island 2010)

Airborne Toxic Event MySpace page
Click to buy All I Ever Wanted from Amazon

The Who: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970


RIYL: Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience

“On August 29, 1970, The Who stepped onto the stage before an audience estimated at 600,000 at the Isle of Wight Festival at a time that, arguably, they were at the top of their game,” writes Mike Brown (a school mate of the band) in the liner notes for this two-disc release of the band’s killer show of 40 years ago. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could listen to this stellar show and argue the point about the Who being at the top of their game.

The band certainly went on to deliver some more classic albums and big tours in the ’70s, but here, touring behind guitarist Pete Townshend’s brilliant rock opera Tommy, the band is en fuego. The brilliant talent of drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle is evident in a vital way that doesn’t come across the same on the band’s studio recordings. And Townshend, long hailed as a brilliant songwriter and arranger but rarely if ever mentioned as a great lead guitarist, shows chops to burn on one wailing solo after another.

The band comes out blazing on “Heaven and Hell” and never lets up, with Townshend serving early notice that he came to play, ripping off a hot bluesy solo while Entwistle and Moon rock out. “Young Man Blues” is another early highlight, with the rhythm section just killing it and Townshend delivering another searing lead. Entwistle’s inventive bass playing is particularly impressive throughout the show, easily placing him on par with peers like Jack Casady, Jack Bruce and Phil Lesh.

From there the band moves into a complete and epic rendition of Tommy that takes up the rest of disc one and most of disc two. The rock opera really picks up steam down the stretch with the classic chords of “Go to the Mirror” and singer Roger Daltrey starring on a revelatory version of “I’m Free.” The epic conclusion of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the band’s timeless anthem of rebellion, is pure money, clocking in at almost 10 minutes. Then the band rocks out on charged versions of “Summertime Blues,” a cover medley that includes a grungy version of “Twist and Shout,” “Substitute” and a killer jam on “My Generation” that sounds almost like the Jimi Hendrix Experience (who shared the bill.) The heavy bluesy jamming continues on “Naked Eye” before the show wraps with “Magic Bus.” This show is classic rock history 101 at its finest. (Eagle Records 2009)

The Robert Cray Band: Cookin’ in Mobile


RIYL: Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Freddie King

In the 1980s, when rock music took a slick turn and anyone playing the blues was kind of poo pooed, several artists carried the torch until the rest of the music world woke up from their hairspray-induced coma and rediscovered the blues. The two most prominent were Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. Cray’s status is often overshadowed by the flashier Vaughan, but his place in the annals of blues rock is just as important as the deceased guitar god from Texas. The Robert Cray Band has continued to put out solid, plucky albums (18 so far) since their debut in 1980, while still dazzling audiences with their phenomenal live concerts. That expertise of the Robert Cray Band is on full display throughout Cookin’ in Mobile, this new CD (a DVD of the same concert is also available).

Recorded earlier this year at the historic Saenger Theater in Mobile, Alabama, Cray and his solid backing band of Jim Pugh on keyboards, Richard Cousins on bass and Tony Braunagel on drums, deliver a tight set of songs that rock the house right from the get go with the opening scorcher “Our Last Time.” Classic hits like “Right Next Door” and Cray’s signature song, “Smoking Gun,” are opened up for extended jamming between the musicians. The latter clocks in at over seven minutes as Cray decides to school his audience on what blues rock guitar sounds like. Elsewhere throughout the album, Pugh takes the spotlight, in particularly on “One in the Middle,” which has a killer organ solo by Cray’s longtime sideman.

While the album may appear to look short with just 12 songs on it, in actuality, only two of them clock in at under five minutes. What you get on Cookin’ in Mobile is a real concert experience, with the band giving the songs new life from their studio counterparts. You may not be able to see each pained expression Cray gives when making his Fender sing, but you can feel the passion from his playing on every track. If you’ve never had the opportunity to catch the Robert Cray Band in concert, Cookin’ in Mobile is a fine place to start. (Vanguard Records 2010)

Robert Cray MySpace Page
Purchase Cookin’ in Mobile from Amazon



Indigo Girls: Staring Down the Brilliant Dream


RIYL: Brandi Carlisle, Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin

Throughout their 20-plus-year career, the Indigo Girls have maintained not only their integrity as songwriters, but they have managed to consistently produce music that pierces the hearts of their listeners. While the music industry may have forgotten about Emily Sailers and Amy Ray, their loyal fans have stuck with them as they’ve branched out from an indie folk act to incorporate blues, Americana and straight-up rock and roll into their sound. While the sound may have changed, one thing that has remained intact after all of these years is the Girls’ immaculate harmonies. They still sound pitch perfect and as beautiful as they did the first time we all heard “Closer to Fine” back in 1989.

On Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, the group’s new double-CD live album, those famous harmonies are front and center. Recorded during their 2006-2009 tours, there are 31 songs on this album, each hand-selected by the Grammy-winning duo. Those of you thinking that you could never sit through two CDs of the Indigo Girls, their acoustic guitars, and a concert hall full of their adoring fans, fear not; the Indigo Girls are accompanied by their killer band, with the band members filtering in as needed. Full band arrangements of “Shame on you” and “Fill It Up Again” are lovely examples of Ray and Sailers acting as expert bandleaders, while “Fly Away” and “Watershed” show that the Indigo Girls can still captivate a crowd with just two instruments.

Highlights on Disc One include the haunting “Ozilline,” a rousing cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, “ featuring guest vocals by Brandi Carlisle, and a superb rendition of “Kid Fears,” with Three5Human lead singer, Trina Meade, taking the Michael Stipe solo. This version of the song from their debut album rivals the original recording in it power. Disc Two highlights are the rollicking “Rock and Roll Heaven’s Gate,” the breathtaking “Fugitive,” and the great ‘fuck off’ song, “Become You.” Sound quality on Staring Down the Brilliant Dream is outstanding. The clarity of the vocals and the separation between the instruments gives you the full effect of being at the venue and hearing the Indigo Girls live.

Fans of the Indigo Girls are going to buy this album regardless of this review, but for those of you who’ve never experienced one of the Girls’ concerts, or for those of you who stopped listening to the group after their early ’90s heyday, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream is a fine way to become (re)acquainted with the band. (IG Recordings/Vanguard Records, 2010)

Official Indigo Girls website
Click to buy Staring Down the Brilliant Dream at Amazon


The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights


RIYL: Going to White Stripes concerts

Recorded throughout their 2007 Canadian tour, Under The Great White Northern Lights doubles as the White Stripes’ first live album and as the soundtrack to the tour documentary of the same name. A Canadian tour may be an unlikely source from which to cull live material, but it’s clear that Jack and Meg have enthusiasm for their neighbors to the north, since they absolutely shredded it for them.

Under Great White Northern Lights accurately conveys the manic, almost primal, energy of a White Stripes concert. The way the two tear through “Let’s Shake Hands” and “Blue Orchid” is brutal, Meg pounds every beat like it’s her last and Jack practically tears the guitar to pieces with every riff and yells every line with such sincerity and intensity that they all sounds like personal insults directed the person whom he hates the most. The spiteful “Citizen Kane”-inspired jibes of “The Union Forever” sound just as scornful and hate-filled as they did when they first recorded that song nearly 10 years ago. If Jack and Meg are sick of this material, they sure as hell aren’t showing it.

But when they are sick of a song it sure shows. Rightfully tired of “Fell in Love with a Girl,” they try to turn it into a slow jam to mix things up, but without the manic riff that’s present on the album version, that song just falls apart. They also try to turn it into a sing-along during the chorus but throughout most of the album the Canadians suck at audience participation. Their delays in prompted singing cause more than one stumble in Jack’s pacing and when it comes time for quiet songs like “We Are Going to Be Friends” they just don’t know when the hell to shut up. A gaggle of screamers ruin that recording, drowning out Jack’s heartfelt lyrics with constant high-pitched squealing. It’s unbearably annoying.

But when the audience shuts up and when Jack and Meg don’t radically deviate from the source material in distracting ways, there’s little to complain about on this album. Sure, it’s easy to whine about some notable omissions (no “Hotel Yorba,” “The Hardest Button to Button” or “Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground,” for instance) but instead focus on the rarities that are included. The Dolly Parton classic “Jolene” has been a live staple for the White Stripes since their inception, and this marks the first time it’s been included on an album proper. Same goes for “Let’s Shake Hands,” which was the band’s first release as a single back in 1998. Hardcore fans will more likely care about that than the bigger well-known tracks that are excluded. In fact, what’s probably most maddening about Under Great White Northern Lights is that it’ll have you jonesing even more for new White Stripes. The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs just aren’t cutting it anymore. (Third Man 2010)

The White Stripes’ MySpace Page

Medeski, Martin and Wood: Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set


RIYL: Fusion jazz, jambands, Bernie Worrell, Galactic

If you are sick of the state of the music business, if you need some new music that sounds truly new, if FM radio bores you to tears and even the blog-rock CDs showing up on every music site’s “best of” list lets you down because it all sounds like half-practiced, overproduced slacker junk played by snotty people you wouldn’t invite to parties at your place…please go and buy this box set. The culmination of the two-year Radiolarians project, The Evolutionary Set is the career pinnacle of MMW, jazz-rocking experimentalists who are neither jazz nor rock, but “avant-groove.” Kind of an thinking-fan’s instrumental Phish, this trio started with an idea in 2007: Write some proto-jams, briefly rehearse them, take them on tour, develop them live, and then record the finished project. It spawned three ridiculously tight, sometimes funky, sometimes rockin’, sometimes ambient-noodling numbers that sound like nothing you’ve heard. It doesn’t hurt that these guys not only have played together almost two decades, but that they’re exceptional players. The box set includes the three Radiolarians albums, a double-vinyl set, a DVD documentary, a remixes disc, and a live album. It’s intelligent jazz, it’s primitive rock. It’s funky stuff. It’s an updated 2009 version of the strangely beautiful Miles Davis period that included the records On The Corner and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. It’s everything indie music’s all about, and while the major labels and commercial radio won’t touch this stuff, you should. (Indirecto Records, 2009)

Medeski Martin and Wood MySpace page

The scoop on Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s SuperHighway Tour

Perhaps the greatest reward an older artist can have is the satisfaction of knowing a massive representation of their work is available for all to experience. Some musicians quit their bands or go on hiatus, only to reunite for all the wrong reasons. Others simply slap together one or several predictable compilations. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will never succumb to this level of triviality. The band has been together since 1976, constantly touring and recording. In watching them perform at last year’s Super Bowl, it’s obvious how important they are to American music.

Over the years, the band has created an impressive catalogue of studio albums, but their live act also continues to earn heaps of praise. On November 24, Reprise Records will unveil The Live Anthology, a 4-disc box set (also available for download) containing 48 tracks compiled by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, and Ryan Ulyate from three decades worth of live material. The package also looks spectacular, featuring artwork from Shepard Fairey, who recently designed the “HOPE” poster for Obama’s presidential campaign.

Come November 22, Best Buy will have the honor of exclusively selling the deluxe version in the U.S. In addition to the standard package, buyers will receive an extra disc of live material, two previously unavailable DVDs, a Blu-ray disc featuring all 62 songs in pristine 96K 24-bit audio, and a seven LP vinyl box set of 51 tracks. Damn.

Still, retrospectives the size of Smart cars are nothing new. Tom Petty knows this, so instead of simply treating his fans to a delectable live package, his team created a one-of-a-kind sensation to up to the ante. It’s called the SuperHighway Tour, an online experience that augments The Live Anthology. By purchasing a “ticket” to the SuperHighway Tour, fans can access commentary, vintage photos, and a virtual merchandise booth, all the while surfing through its visually stunning website.

Here’s how the label describes it:

Fans will also be able to share their photos and stories from their favorite Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers shows. Then on the album’s November 24 release, ticketholders will receive the remaining 24 tracks on The Live Anthology, thereby completing the digital album.

Access to the Superhighway Tour will be available to fans that purchase “tickets” from Ticketmaster.com or through the Superhighway Tour box office.

Tickets for the entire 8-week Superhighway Tour are on sale now through Ticketmaster.com and TomPettySuperHighwayTour.com. The price of a Superhighway Tour ticket includes all 48 The Live Anthology digital tracks plus the 8-week online experience for $24.98 without any additional service fees. Downloads will be available in 256kbps MP3 or FLAC formats – fan’s choice.

A FREE PREVIEW of the SuperHighway Tour is now available at http://www.tompettysuperhighwaytour.com and includes a FREE DOWNLOAD of a track from the 1981 run of shows at Los Angeles’ Forum.

The release of The Live Anthology comes on the heels of two sold out tours, the Grammy winning documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream (directed by Peter Bogdanovich), and a headline performance at the Super Bowl XLII halftime show. Now, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – one of rock and roll’s greatest touring bands – will mark their unparalleled string of success with the release of this landmark collection of live recordings that is unlike anything previously available – the band’s story told through the music alone.

The producers made no fixes or overdubs, letting the newly mixed original recordings showcase the invention, spontaneity, craft, and the musicianship that has made Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers among the most celebrated live performers of their time. Along with powerful interpretations of their own classic hits and originals, The Live Anthology features the band tackling some of their best-loved cover material, from classics to obscure beauties to unexpected adaptations. The theme from Goldfinger, the Zombies’ “I Want You Back Again,” the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” early Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onions,” James Brown’s “Good, Good Lovin’” and many more. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers travel wide, paying their musical debts through song and showing just how confidently the band moves across genres and over time.

It’s like going to a concert and avoiding the long lines, body odor, and drunken idiots. Seriously though, this is an innovative idea — one that guarantees weeks of staring at your computer and rocking out like you’re actually in attendance.

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