Elton John & Leon Russell: The Union


RIYL: Leon Russell, classic Elton John, aging gracefully


For the majority of the ’70s, Elton John was positively unstoppable – and for much of the ’80s, he was so creatively bankrupt that by the time he returned to limited form with 1987’s Reg Strikes Back, it was such a welcome surprise that he’s been handed a pass for most of the lukewarm adult contemporary pop he’s released in the intervening two decades and change. Compared to Leather Jackets and Ice on Fire, late-period Elton like Songs from the West Coast and Peachtree Road is a step up, but those albums still lack the heat and creative energy of his best work, and a lot of the positive reviews he’s gotten over the last couple of decades have come through a combination of blessed relief and the standard grade inflation enjoyed by veteran artists who manage not to suck outright.

Leon Russell, meanwhile, has never released anything as half-baked as the junk Elton was peddling at his nadir – but then, Leon never had as far to fall as Elton, and he’s had the luxury of carving out a low-key career for himself as an indie artist in between tours and session cameos. If people know Russell’s name at all, it’s usually because of his early ’70s work; his more recent releases might be second- or third-tier stuff, but they had fewer people to disappoint. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the prospect of Elton and Leon teaming up for The Union, while intriguing, had the look and feel of a classic rock setup – the kind of project with a strong concept, and executed by performers with undeniable talent, but bound to underwhelm because the artists can’t, or won’t, light their creative spark.

So here’s a happy surprise for anyone who’s suffered through Elton’s post-’70s work and wondered when he’d shift back out of second gear, or been frustrated that Russell hasn’t found more suitable showcases for his talent: The Union is not only the best thing either of them have done in years, it’s a vibrant, rootsy template for how many of their peers (coughBillyJoelandRodStewartcough) can get their mojo back.

What’s the difference? It’s true that some of the songs have more bite, including the rave-ups “Monkey Suit” and “A Dream Come True,” as well as the winking first single “If It Wasn’t for Bad,” but there’s also plenty of room for sleepy ballads like “The Best Part of the Day.” What really sets it apart is T Bone Burnett’s production, which strips back the synthetic varnish that both artists have leaned on too often and exposes the knots and whorls in their finely aged voices – and, more importantly, captures some of the best-sounding piano tracks either of them have laid down in the last 30 years. It’s obvious that a lot of money went into The Union – Booker T. Jones, Jim Keltner, Brian Wilson, Neil Young, and Robert Randolph are some of the guests – but it all went into capturing pure performances, rather than dressing them up. This is a loose, vibrant record, and while it isn’t entirely free of the schmaltz that’s plagued Elton’s later albums in particular, it’s obvious that having Russell as a foil (and Burnett’s strong, minimalist hand in the studio) has brought out the best in him. The musical fruition of a friendship struck up 40 years ago, The Union brings Elton John and Leon Russell full circle – and should bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s been holding out hope that both artists would find their way back to what made their music special. (Mercury 2010)

Elton John MySpace page

  

Mark Olson: Many Colored Kite


RIYL: The Jayhawks, Gram Parsons, Neil Young

Fans of the Jayhawks, Gram Parsons and Neil Young should be thrilled with Mark Olson’s new solo recording, Many Colored Kite. In fact, it’s Young’s early solo recordings that this album reminded me the most of. Olson’s deep, country twang, backed with compelling lyrics and solid music bring to mind such albums as After the Gold Rush and Harvest, albums grounded in country and folk, but with rock overtones.

Many Colored Kite is a pastoral affair. Olson has returned to the countryside, using nature as a theme and metaphor for the 11 songs on the album. Whether it’s a song about making it through a difficult time and finding rebirth in the world (“Little Bird of Freedom”), or it’s hopelessly romantic (“Beehive,” “Blue Bell”) or just a celebration of life and nature (“Morning Dove,” “Wind and Rain”), all of the songs are coming from a place of peacefulness in the singer/songwriter.

Music listeners unfamiliar with Olson’s solo output or his work as one of the co-founders of the Jayhawks may be off put by his singing voice upon initial listen. However, after repeated plays the melodies grow on you and create a soothing listening experience. Olson was definitely knee-deep in a ’60s experience when he recorded this collection of songs; you can definitely feel the peace, love and happiness he was experiencing come through in the music. (2010 Rykodisc)

Mark Olson MySpace page
Purchase Many Colored Kite through Amazon

  

Neil Young serious about summer

Neil Young has added more dates to his “Twisted Road” tour with fellow folk musician Bert Jansch. The 14-date jaunt will feature Young playing solo, the first time he’s done so on a tour in many years. The dates are below.

05/18 – Albany, NY @ Palace Theatre *
05/19 – Buffalo, NY @ Shea’s Performing Arts Center *
05/21 – Worcester, MA @ Hanover Theatre *
05/23 – Wallingford, CT @ Oakdale Theatre *
05/24 – Washington, DC @ Constitution Hall *
05/26 – Louisville, KY @ Palace Theatre *
05/27 – Knoxville, TN @ Civic Auditorium *
05/29 – Atlanta, GA @ Fox Theatre *
05/30 – Spartanburg, SC @ Memorial Auditorium *
06/01 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium *
06/02 – Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium *
06/04 – Houston, TX @ Jones Hall *
06/05 – Austin, TX @ Bass Performance Hall *
06/07 – Dallas, TX @ Meyerson Symphony Center

No California love, I see. What gives, Neil?

  

21st Century Breakdown: Greg M. Schwartz’s Top 10 Albums of the 2000s

It’s been a decade of strange contradiction for the music industry. The historic decline of sales might suggest to some that rock ‘n’ roll is waning – the demise of Tower Records could even be viewed as a sign of an impending global apocalypse. But there’s a somewhat hidden story of the 2000s, which is that it’s been a fabulous decade for live music. While the RIAA cried that the sky was falling, a new wave of improvisational rock bands made a steady living by touring the country with exciting live shows that differed every night. These bands won die-hard core followings of music fans in search of peak experiences not offered by one-hit wonders and paint-by-numbers performers. Following a path blazed by the Grateful Dead and then Phish, a whole new movement blossomed into a thriving scene that made the 2000s the decade of the jam band.

Phish kicked the new decade/century/millennium off in maximum style by throwing down the most epic performance in rock history with their 12/31/99 New Year’s Eve show at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Everglades before 80,000 revelers (the largest ticketed millennium party on the planet.) After having played a three-set show on December 30 and an afternoon set on the 31st, the band returned to the stage at midnight and played until past the dawn, delivering a monumental seven-hour plus set with no breaks. Phish would go on to have their ups and downs in the decade (a hiatus in 2001-02, a stunning “permanent” breakup in 2004, a triumphant return in 2009), but the jam band scene grew to the point where it could flourish without an arena-level entity like Phish to lead the way. There are a slew of great bands touring clubs, auditoriums and theaters year-round now, keeping alive a counterculture music scene birthed in the ’60s but evolving in fresh, exciting ways in the 21st century. These bands rarely make classic albums, because the songs don’t fully evolve until they’re worked out on the road. But for many fans, the live experience delivered by these bands far surpasses anything that passes for “popular” music.

The growth of the jam rock scene also led to the rebirth of the festival movement. The inaugural Bonnaroo Festival in 2002 was built on the template of the big Phish festivals – lots of custom psychedelic scenery, fan-friendly event staff, reasonably priced amenities and remote location to better establish the alternate reality of counterculture utopia. The first Bonnaroo was a jam band Woodstock, featuring nearly all of the top acts from the scene. Bonnaroo kept growing and branched out to include more genres, only to see the Rothbury Festival created in 2008 to rekindle that jam-centric vibe. Lollapalooza was also reborn as a weekend festival, while Austin City Limits flourished and the similarly-scoped Outside Lands Festival was launched in San Francisco. A slew of smaller regional festivals dot the music calendar. The bottom line is that there are more opportunities than ever to see great live music here in the 21st century.

Another secret of the jam band success is that all of of these groups encourage audience recordings and many allow them to be freely available for downloading at Archive.org, a site that is easily the greatest gift the music gods could have bestowed on Earth at this juncture. It’s an absolute treasure trove. And conjunction with our End of Decade series, here are my top ten albums of the decade. Stay tuned for my top ten concerts I had the good fortune to witness this past decade, with links to hear the shows where available.

Top Albums of the 2000s (in chronological order)
Michael Franti & Spearhead: Stay Human (2001)
Franti and crew blew everyone away at the 6/15/01 CD release party at the Fillmore in San Francisco with a mix of socially conscious hip-hop, funk, soul and rock that I’d never heard blended together in such a strong way before. This powerful concept album features lamentations for all that’s wrong with the world mixed with a cathartic and uplifting vibe about taking the power back. Woody Harrelson guests as a right-wing governor to serve as a foil to Franti’s pirate radio station. “Oh My God” and “Rock the Nation” were the post-9/11 songs of the year, presciently released in the summer.

The String Cheese Incident: Outside Inside (2001)
This is one of the rare jam band albums (Widespread Panic’s Til the Medicine Takes from 1999 is another) where the band’s collection of songwriting matches their instrumental prowess. SCI’s third studio album saw them shifting from a bluegrass-based sound to more of a rock flavor, yet without abandoning their roots. A socially conscious tone that most larger bands eschew also helped make SCI the unique entity they became. “Black and White” is a funky take on hidden history, while “Rollover” warns of impending Earth changes. “Close Your Eyes” and “Sing a New Song” demonstrate the band’s melodic rock talents and instrumental chemistry, as does the hard rocking title track. Nearly all 11 songs became live fan favorites, the true mark of a classic album.

Incubus: Morning View (2001)
Alternative rock didn’t all collapse into rap metal at the turn of the century. Incubus had blown up with 1999’s Make Yourself and followed it up with this gem of an album that mixes hard rock with heartfelt vocals, melodic hooks, and some turntable flavor. Vocalist Brandon Boyd scored the only rock radio hit of the decade that mentioned UFOs with “Wish You Were Here,” while the band also demonstrated their versatility with feel-good funk on “Are You In?” and ambient psychedelia on “Aqueous Transmission.” Guitarist Mike Einzeiger is a master of mixing hard rock crunch with psychedelic flair on tunes like “Nice to Know You,” “Circles” and “Warning,” showing that you can be a metal head and a Phish-head too.

Green Day: American Idiot (2004)
The Bay Area trio evolved from mere pop-punkers into one of the most ambitious rock bands on the planet with this concept album that got back to what punk is really supposed to be about – taking issue with authority and commenting on society’s ills. “American Idiot” was not only the anthem of the year, it summed up the Bush regime’s entire first term. Billy Joe Armstrong’s songwriting brought in a majestic Queen flavor, while still retaining punk rock roots for one of the top audience crossover albums of all time. It’s too bad more bands don’t have the guts to show such ambition. The follow-up, 2009’s 21st Century Breakdown, is also a most worthy successor that could have made this list as well.

Beastie Boys: To the 5 Boroughs (2004)
There’s been little in hip-hop this decade that combines the Beasties’ knack for mixing funky grooves with insightful social commentary. Tunes like “Right Right Now Now,” “All Lifestyles” and “We Got The” deliver an uplifting vibe about bringing the planet together, with slamming beats and psychedelic tricks. The lyrical flavor is a sharp and welcome contrast to the petty rivalries and superficial obsessions that infect hip-hop like a cancer. But tracks like “3 The Hard Way,” “Triple Trouble” and “Hey Fuck You” still flat-out jam with the party vibe that made the Beasties famous, all of which makes this album a mainline into the cultural zeitgeist of the decade. The Beasties know that we want to party and save the planet too, and they dare to dream it possible to do both.

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals: Cold Roses (2005)
Adams put out a string of great albums throughout the decade, arguably making a case as songwriter of the decade. Rolling Stone may favor 2000’s Heartbreaker and 2001’s Gold, but this double-album opus is Adams’ true masterpiece. It caught Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s ear to such a degree that he not only invited Adams to collaborate, but brought in a number of Adams’ tunes into his own repertoire after Adams left the fold. Adams has an amazing knack for tapping into universal emotions that correspond to all levels of love and loss. The depth and variety of emotion he explores on this album is a supreme achievement. “Mockingbirdsing” might be the most heartfelt song of the decade, with “Magnolia Mountain,” “Easy Plateau,” “Let it Ride” and “If I Am a Stranger” close behind.

Neil Young: Living with War (2006)
It’s kind of a shame that a younger band didn’t put out this album, but thank the music gods that Neil was up to the task of putting out “Let’s Impeach the President.” Pearl Jam had taken a disturbing amount of flack for “Bush Leaguer” in 2003, so maybe younger bands were afraid to speak out. But with the Bush regime plunging the planet into utter chaos and ruin, it was imperative that rock ‘n’ roll have a response. Young recorded this album in a matter of days, and it’s utterly brilliant in its urgency and social commentary, all of which takes on renewed relevance here at the end of the decade with Obama escalating the Afghanistan war. This album rocks like a Crazy Horse classic, filled with catchy melodies, grungy guitars, a choir of harmonies and brilliant lyrics. It’s a shame on America that it didn’t sell better.

Pearl Jam: Pearl Jam (2006)
Pearl Jam has always been a force to be reckoned with in the live arena, but they started the decade off with a couple of lackluster albums with 2000’s Binaural and 2002’s Riot Act. So it was most inspiring to hear them come back with an album that rekindled the band’s original fire with more up-tempo energy and some instant classic tunes. “World Wide Suicide” was not only one of the most prominent songs of the year, it was an anthem for the entire decade, taking the powers that be to task for their reckless ways that endanger all humanity, yet doing so in the context of one of the catchiest songs the band has ever written. “Severed Hand” is one of the most electrifying guitar workouts the band has ever laid down, and that immediacy bleeds over into other hot tunes like “Life Wasted,” “Big Wave” and the grandeur of “Inside Job.” Eddie Vedder’s lyrics are consistently strong throughout, with the birth of his daughter stoking his justifiable anger at the state of the planet.

Radiohead: In Rainbows (2007)
I didn’t have this album as best of the year in 2007, but it really grew on me after witnessing the band’s awesome set at San Francisco’s Outside Lands Festival in 2008. Trendy consensus ranks 2000’s Kid A as the band’s best album of the decade, but for my money, there’s only one song on there (“National Anthem”) that rocks like “Bodysnatchers,” “Weird Fish/Arpeggi” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place,” three songs as good as anything the band has ever produced. There’s a power at work here that only continued to build the band’s aura as a cultural force to be reckoned with. This was augmented by the band’s bold and innovative decision to release the album online with only a digital tip jar to collect donations. This made In Rainbows more than just another big rock album, it made it a true cultural touchstone.

The Black Crowes: Before the Frost… Until the Freeze (2009)
After putting out a merely decent comeback album with a handful of great moments on 2008’s Warpaint, the Black Crowes dug deep into the well for this magnificent double album that re-stakes their claim as one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands of their generation. Recorded live at Levon Helm’s home studio in Woodstock, NY, there’s an immediacy missing from albums of most bands that like to jam like the Crowes do. Chris Robinson is at his soulful best on bluesy southern rockers like “Been a Long Time (Waiting on Love),” “A Train Makes a Lonely Sound” and “Houston Don’t Forget About Me,” as well as deep ballads like “Appaloosa” and “Last Place that Love Lives.” Guitarist Rich Robinson leads the band in a dazzling array of musical depth and maturity that runs a gamut of stylistic references, with lyrics from Chris that clearly come from deep in the heart. The Freeze disc features a collection of acoustic-oriented winners that are tasty icing on the cake. This is the kind of rare mid-career album that enables a band to really expand their repertoire with quality material.

  

The scoop on Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young Trunk Show”

While fictional biopics such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line” are worth your dollar if you want to see some great acting, I prefer to watch the actual musician(s) in their element. Being relatively young, I haven’t had the chance to catch some of my favorites live, so I get very excited when live DVDs and documentaries are announced. Still, those are often hit or miss. Thankfully, some filmmakers have, over the years, utilized techniques that really “capture” a performance in ways that even being attendance can’t produce. Take Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” for example, or more recently, Davis Guggenheim’s “It Might Get Loud.” Neil Young is an individual who puts everything he has into his live act. This requires actual “thinking” on his part, and over the years he’s began combining different forms of art into a traditional tour date. Jonathan Demme (director of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Rachel Getting Married) has long been fascinated by the rock verteran’s otherworldly presence on stage. So far, in his planned trilogy on Young, Demm’s released “Heart of Gold,” a concert film documenting a performance shortly after the release of Young’s album “Prairie Wind.” The second installment, “Neil Young Trunk Show,” looks just as captivating.

Trunk Show is subtitled “scenes from a concert,” specifically from a pair of shows Young performed at the 1927-built Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, as part of his intimate Chrome Dreams II theater tour in 2008. Onstage, he performed a full acoustic set, followed by a full electric one with bandmates Ben Keith, Rick Rosas, Ralph Molina, Anthony “Sweetpea” Crawford and wife Pegi Young. He also had painter Eric Johnson creating on-the-spot works for each song. The stage was cluttered with “pre-digital” items, including a fan, DNC camera, and telephone.

Demme knew the set list, but says nothing was planned for the film. “Neil trusts me,” he says. Shot on hand-held cameras (HDCam, HDV and Super-8mm), Demme’s team included director of photography Declan Quinn (Rachel Getting Married, Leaving Las Vegas) and camera operators he’s worked with before.

Unlike the as-is sequence of Heart of Gold, for Trunk Show Demme jumbled the set list: the rare (”Mexico,” “Kansas,” “The Sultan”), the classics (”Cinnamon Girl,” “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “After the Gold Rush,” “Like a Hurricane”) and more recent (”No Hidden Path,” “The Believer”), and interspersed a few offstage moments to “ventilate the visuals” from the “claustrophobic indoors on the stage.” Those included Young’s entry to the Tower from a garbage-filled alley and the removal of a hangnail in his dressing room “He is completely unvain,” says Demme.

“Neil Young Trunk Show” will run at the Woodstock Film Festival but a nationwide release date hasn’t been announced. He’s one of the few “older guys” I really want to see live. Hopefully this film comes out soon to tide me over.

  

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