music blog reporting on new recordings from vintage artists
by Michael A. Cimino
2016: The Year We Said Goodbye
This past December 8, the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, I was beginning my day at work when my young co-worker turned on the sound system and clicked on my Progressive Rock playlist. “We don’t have to listen to that,” I said. “That’s what I was listening to yesterday when it was slow.”
“Oh, no,” came the response. “I want to check it out. What is Progressive Rock anyway?”
Brightening, I was happy to explain the Classical influence that had been incorporated into 70’s era Rock ‘n’ Roll, when it wasn’t unusual for a straight ahead Rock band be supported by a symphony orchestra, and went about my morning ritual of checking e mails and messages on Facebook.
We listened to the intro song, Renaissance’s “Prologue” from Live at Carnegie Hall, and then came Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Pirates.” As Greg Lake magnificently sang out from two of the crappiest speakers I have ever had the unfortunate discomfort to be saddled with I looked down at my computer monitor to read a post from Tony Bramwell, author of Magical Mystery Tours and old confidant of The Beatles. It simply read GREG LAKE R.I.P.
‘No. That’s a mistake,’ I thought. ‘It’s my mind playing tricks on me. Tony must have written JOHN LENNON R.I.P.’
I looked at the screen again. GREG LAKE R.I.P.
Throughout my years on this planet, and my many experiences of loss, I don’t think I ever fully understood when people would say they were speechless, or that words had no meaning – until then. It was absolute, and it was finite. When those three letters follow an artist’s name it is their epilogue and we mere mortals are left to bathe in the brilliance that once was their purpose. There, really, were no words.
People had often asked me about my career in music journalism and the question that arises most is who my favorite interview subject was. Always, and without fail, I would refer back to the time I had the great pleasure of interviewing Greg Lake. Sure, all the interviews I did while working on Joey Molland’s life story (Badfinger and Beyond) were titillating and exciting (to a point where many of them were conducted with a microphone in one hand a glass of wine – or three – in the other, a shot of courage to mask my nerves.) However, I always recall how Greg Lake had made me feel at ease, invited me to come backstage and have ‘a cup of tea’ and a chat. He was a real English gentleman, and one of my all time favorite artists. I had seen him with ELP three times, one of those times with a full orchestra at Madison Square Garden, and all three times during critical periods of their career. I had also seen him perform with Ringo’s All Starr Band, and once as a solo artist. Not once did he ever fail to deliver.
I really can’t remember where I was, or who turned me on to them, but what I do recall about ‘discovering’ ELP back in the early days was that they had a certain spirituality about them. As a unit they could be at once aggressive and restrained, reflective and over-the-top, and all the while the three musicians intricately wove themselves into a synchronized manifestation of aural muscle.
Greg Lake possessed a voice and a lyrical sensibility that was steeped in some dark and mysterious age. While he sang not only of, and for, our present day in the most majestic and powerful style in contemporary music he also exuded a deep ancient sadness as if he mourned over our frivolous humanitarian ways and our fragile existence.
Over a decade has passed since I conducted that interview with Greg, and the memory that stands out for me most is the spiritual connection I felt with the man. It was his way of embracing our existence, looking at his craft and his art, and ultimately accepting his life.
“You pray that some divine wind of inspiration will blow you away,” he said. “I have this theory that you really don’t invent ideas. Ideas, kind of, pass through you. I think one has to leave oneself open to feel the sort of energy that is always present. It’s always available to tap into. One just has to be attentive to listen for its calling card. That, really, is all you can do.”
Is it any wonder that his music was playing at the very moment I read the news of his passing? I think not. I think it was a sign. A personal way of saying goodbye, in a year we had to say goodbye to far too many of our heroes of stage and screen, pioneers of poetry, policy, sports, reporting, music, and acting. It was a year of saying goodbye to voices that lifted us up, consoled us when we were down, and gave us the drive to move forward even when the only thing we could count on was that the unknown was just around the corner. Voices that urged us to “get through this thing called life,” to not “let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy,” that “you’re a shining star, no matter who you are,” that we “gotta have faith.”
These were voices that spoke for us when we couldn’t find the words, voices that spoke for us when we didn’t have the courage, and voices that spoke for us when no one would listen. These were the voices that forced us to deal with our own personal “ch-ch-ch-changes.”
For all of those departed, this newsletter is for you. It is because of you that I bother to write in the first place.
Frank Zappa once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” While that may be fair enough, I must – with good faith – argue that music journalism can bring attention to beautiful music that may not otherwise be heard. It may be the impetus for someone to seek out something that may ultimately give them pleasure for years, or even decades, to come.
As Shakespeare famously said, “If music be the food of love, [then] play on.” And, as Greg Lake wrote, and gloriously sang, in ELP’s interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition “There’s no end to my life/No beginning to my death/Death is life.”
Off Year For Classic Rockers Provides Few Hits
“Rock is dead they say…” wrote Pete Townsend of The Who back in 1971, the year that brought us Tapestry, and many more classics that helped turn Pop music into long-lasting themes for a generation. It was also the year ELP gave us “The Stones of Years” and the lyrics ‘When you speak/is it you that hears?/Are your ears/full?’
45 years later we look back and realize that perhaps our ears are full, and really we ‘can’t hear anything at all.’ We now live in an age where the barrage of media feeds us an illusion of eternal youth and beauty which dominates our eating, sleeping, and buying habits. Today’s technology force-feeds us on so many levels we find it dictates what music we listen to and even the way we listen to it. Rock ‘n’ Roll has always had a gut level undertone of sexuality and vitality that drove us in our adolescence, and as we slide into middle age many of us long to cling onto those youthful feelings. Rock ‘n’ Roll can, and will, still excite providing we can momentarily fight the forces that be and find a few stolen moments to truly listen.
Unfortunately, 2016 was not a banner year for Rock music. Only a handful of artists from the golden era of Rock released new music, and amongst these releases not all were the stellar masterpieces that the artists have come to be known for.
Some, like Bowie and Paul Simon, over time formed their own genre that rarely fits into what was relevant in our youth and now appeal only to a niche market. Others tend to repeat themselves with varying degrees of success, and some forge forward with one eye on the future and another one looking back.
Such is the case with Elton John, who released his 32nd disc of new material in 2016, entitled Wonderful Crazy Night. Recorded with most of the same band he has worked with since 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, he requested ‘more guitar’ as he intended to write an upbeat album. Success there, boy! WCN shows Elton is still rockin’ around the clock here with some fine lyrics by Bernie Taupin. A handful of tunes really stand out and make this Elton’s third smash hit in this decade.
Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders has been steadily working, touring with Stevie Nicks and recording both solo and band projects. Last year she teamed up with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys to record Alone in Nashville. While credited to the band, Hynde is the only Pretender on the disc and unfortunately this (what I thought was a) dream team fall flat. While the lyrics still have some piss and vinegar in them, and Auerbach adds some guitar crunch, Ms. Hynde no longer delivers the sass and edge she had in her heyday.
Another disappointment was Peter Frampton’s Acoustic Classics. Yes, we all know the guy can play his ass off but it’s pretty obvious from this disc that he has either lost his voice or he just didn’t put any effort into the vocals. Take a pass here, my friends.
Someone who has yet to disappoint in his sporadic solo career is J Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf. On A Cure for Lonliness the Wolfa-Goofa plays the diversity card and hands in a batch of songs that range from retro-fifties Pop (“Tragedy”) to cowboy Country-Rock (“Stranger”, “Wastin’ Time”), a Van Morrison styled croon (“It’s Raining”) and some ever funky grooves (“How do you Know”). With a pickin’ & grinin’ version of “Love Stinks” included, these new shoes fit Mr. Wolf rather nicely, indeed.
Another winner is the latest from Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep. Her distinctive vocals and slide guitar approach hasn’t changed a day, and we sure are glad for that. Although Ms. Raitt is not the most prolific songwriter she has contributed 5 of the 12 tracks on Dig In Deep and her originals stand up right next to her excellent taste in covers. She produced the record herself and she knows what she wants, and she gets it. You should get this one, too.
Speaking of stellar guitarists, Eric Clapton released two recordings in 2016. His latest solo, I Still Do, is another quality collection of Blues, Rock, and quasi-Jazz ballads sure to soothe your soul. If you’re looking for some guitar fireworks pick up Live in San Diego with Special Guest JJ Cale. If you’re a fan buy them both. I did, and I didn’t waste my money.
And speaking of fireworks – Santana’s latest, IV, is surely the winner in the guitar-gods category. Reuniting the original Woodstock-era Santana band that recorded “Soul Sacrifice” and “Black Magic Woman” was a smart and long overdue move. This disc is a worthy follow up to where they left off in 1971, featuring some killer jams and great songs. Original lead singer Gregg Rolie hands in performances that rate as ‘hit singles’ while Carlos, Neil Schon, Benny Rietveld, and the triple-threat percussion of Michael Shrieve, Michael Carabello and Karl Perazzo drive the Latin-Rock sound at 120 mph. My only complaint would be that Carlos should have let Rolie do the lead vocal on “Love makes the World go Round.”
The ladies of Heart haven’t slowed down either. While lead singer Ann Wilson released her second EP of songs that influenced her early career, guitarist Nancy Wilson formed a new band called Roadcase Royale with the current rhythm section of Heart along with Prince protégé guitarist Ryan Waters and former Prince collaborator Liv Warfield of New Power Generation. Also in 2016, the sisters released Beautiful Broken under the Heart standard; a collection of newly recorded Heart songs (mostly from the 80s) that the group felt needed some updating. All worthy of Heart fanatics, only one of the new tunes stands out – the Ne-Yo penned “Two.”
Towards the end of the year the Rolling Stones surprised everyone with their first ever covers album and their first full collection of new recordings in over a decade. Blue & Lonesome is twelve tracks of what the Stones do best – balls to the wall electric white-boy Blues. Recorded in three days, with Eric Clapton sitting in on two songs, the disc shimmers with urgency. Released the first week of December it rightfully lodged itself in the US top five and #1 in the UK. Recordings of new original songs were abandoned to ready this disc, but promises of more new Stones songs to come have been floated. If the two new tracks that accompanied their last ‘best of’ package (Grr!), and Blue & Lonesome, are any indication Stones fans will be in for an even bigger treat in 2017.
This brings us to the Cottage Views pick of the year. In 2016 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made the headlines once again. Unfortunately, it was not for any reunion that fans may have been hoping for, but for all four former members of the band releasing solo material. Stephen Stills teamed up with keyboardist Barry Goldberg and guitar wizard Kenny Wayne Shepherd and formed the ad-hoc supergroup The Rides back in 2013. Last year they released their second album entitled Pierced Arrow. Neil Young released another solo last year, called Peace Trail. Sorry, for varying reasons I have not reviewed either disc. However, I will give you my humble opinion on Crosby and Nash’s new music.
David Crosby is one cat I thought would never lose his voice, but I caught him singing live on a NPR special with his new collaborator Michael League of Snarky Puppy and he sounded old, and breathy. Even his speaking voice had the faint hint of a lisp. Could it be that he, like Stills, is losing his hearing? His latest disc, Lighthouse, returns him to his acoustic roots, and there are some pretty (and very mellow) songs here, but for the most part I found it boring and his voice weak, and again with a touch of a lisp. Certainly not the high harmony Croz we had come to love.
Graham Nash, on the other hand, is in great vocal form on his latest, This Path Tonight, his first solo effort in 14 years. Written and recorded after breaking with his wife of 38 years, Nash is at his most reflective here. The album is a consistent collection of personal songs that wouldn’t have been at odds during the early 70s singer/songwriter period. However, this recording is coming from the perspective of a man now on the verge of old age. That being said, at 75 Nash still sounds blatantly vibrant and his honesty resounds with clarity. His capable songwriting skills shine here as well, asking question after question, pressing us to look into our own sub-consciousness. At times he seems to be saying goodbye as he quests for direction, introspectively querying in “Encore” ‘What’re you gonna do when the last show is over?’ This is a man who may or may not have regrets in his life. It is quite hard to tell but throughout this solid disc he shows his unwavering dedication to keep moving forward, no matter the cost. On what may be the nucleus of this song cycle, “Myself At Last,” Nash declares ‘It’s so hard to fight the past’ and yet he sums it up with ‘I’m rolling down this lonesome road/and I found myself at last.’ It is to his credit as an artist that he is able to un-apologetically bare his soul so honestly, and that makes This Path Tonight the best damned disc that was released in 2016.
Copyright 2017 © Michael A. Cimino