The Marsalis Family: Music Redeems

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
3/5 Stars

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)