music blog reporting on new recordings from vintage artists
by Michael A. Cimino
John Ford of Strawbs
Singer/songwriter of the legendary British Rock ensemble Strawbs has been an ex-patriot living in the United States for over 3 decades. Over the years he has been performing periodically with his band in the NYC metropolitan area, and has been releasing new recordings on his own label Whole Shot Records. His love for his adopted homeland has inspired him to write stirring anthems, like “Sandy” after the disastrous hurricane that ravaged America in 2012, as well as straight up Rock ‘n’ Roll. On Easter Sunday, 2020, John released his latest single “All Locked Down,” referencing the struggles of humanity during the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, Cottage Views had the opportunity to speak with John. If you are unfamiliar with John’s solo work, now is the best time to do some research and visit his YouTube channel.
To watch the video for All Locked Down click here
Cottage Views: Hi, John. How are you doing?
John Ford: Ah… like everybody else, I suppose, being stuck in the house.
CV: Yeah, I don’t think anybody was expecting this to be as crazy as it has become.
JF: I must admit that when I saw this a couple of months ago I didn’t think we’d have such a big problem with it, in all honesty.
CV: You’re pretty close to the city, aren’t you?
JF: I’m on the north shore of Long Island, which is about 30 miles [away]. My area, we go through the same things, but it’s not a highly populated area. I go to the supermarket, but I tend to stick to the same stores. If you know where everything is, you can get in and out quick, so I don’t really go anywhere else. It’s like a war zone.
CV: Yes, I don’t think anybody knew the scope of this thing.
JF: On April the 1st, I was going to do this show in the city. It was a tribute for Ronnie Lane of the Small Faces and there was about 15 singers. Prior to April the 1st, on Sunday, we were going to rehearse with all of the singers in a studio and one of the singers was Allan Merrill. You heard of him? He wrote “I love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for Joan Jett. I don’t know if you’ve heard this, he got the virus and died. He played recently and he picked it up. Apparently, they’re saying if people have existing conditions, and apparently he had some lung issues a few years back, and it just knocked him out in a couple of days. So obviously, we never did the show.
(Merrill died on March 29, 2020)
JF: Yeah, it did, cause I’m stuck in my [house]. I made a joke on my Facebook, just for a laugh I put “what can I rhyme with quarantine?” What does ‘quarantine’ rhyme with? And I had all these people write in. You know, I never use their rhymes but then I was messing around with the word ‘quarantine’ and just out of shear boredom down in the studio here I just wrote that song over a period of a couple of weeks. And then, I thought ‘well, I’ve got nothing else to do’ so I recorded it. And that’s how that came about.
I’ve got a few good lines in there, I thought. we can’t get out/so we suffer inside (laughs). I thought that was pretty good.
CV: Tell us about the 50th anniversary concerts for the Strawbs. Did they get together all of the past members of the group?
JF: Most of the former members. Originally, Rick Wakeman was going to do it, but he had something going on and he couldn’t do it. If this was this time last year it would have been cancelled. We would have had to wait another 50 years (laughs).
But, yeah, it was great. There is this theatre in Lakewood, New Jersey, that the Strawbs have been playing at for the last few years called The Strand. It’s a 1920-30’s converted cinema, a beautiful cinema. Dave and the Strawbs have played there quite a few times. It was actually fantastic, it really was. It was two days and then the third day was the brunch for the VIPs.
We had the existing Strawbs band, which is Tony Fernandez, Chas Cronk, the new keyboard player Dave Bainbridge, Dave Cousins and Dave Lambert, and then Blue Weaver, who was on the old stuff with me flew over from Germany, Brian Willoughby who was in the Strawbs and his wife Cathleen Craig, English singer Annie Haslam – she was in Renaissance. We had a guy called Eric Brazilian, who wrote “One of Us” (a #4 hit for Joan Osborne in 1995). He has recently become friends with Dave and he was a great asset to the show. Another British guy called Wesley Stace, he compèred everything.
Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s producer, was there because he produced some early Strawbs tracks. He was there with the orchestra. It was great. It couldn’t have been any better.
CV: Will they be releasing any of the recordings or video from that?
JF: Yeah. It was all filmed and recorded. Blue Weaver is supposed to be producing and editing up what was all done. The fans are all screaming ‘when are we going to see this?’ but it’s not easy to put together and finance. It’s got to be financed to do this, to press all this stuff up. Without a major label behind you you’ve got to do all this stuff yourself.
CV: So, this is what motivated the new song?
Top photo courtesy of John Ford
Photo at left by Michael A. Cimino
WELCOME TO 2020!
Welcome back, music fans! I know, I’ve been away too long, but at long last here’s the report…
As you know, Country music has always been an intrinsic part of Rock ‘n’ Roll. The seminal artists who were the building blocks of Rock ‘n’ Roll, including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and even Chuck Berry, were steeped in Country music. The earliest recordings of The Beatles show Country influence with their covers of Carl Perkins and Buck Owens hits. While modern Country music went through some changes in the seventies, with new production techniques glamorizing the sound, Country lived on in Rock music and influenced many of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s biggest acts, like the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, Pure Prairie League, The Byrds, and Little Feat, to name a few.
There is no doubt that perennial favorites from the Rolling Stones, who are dubbed the ‘greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band in the world’, are dripping with Country influence (think “Dead Flowers” or “Sweet Virginia”). So, it is with no hesitation that I (the biggest Rock ‘n’ Roll fanatic I have ever met) do not have a problem acknowledging that Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fame’s quip ‘Country is the new Rock ‘n’ Roll’ is basically true. Today’s modern Country music is rife with Who-like power chords, Eddie Van Halen styled guitar solos, and huge drum sounds right out of the Tommy Lee/Mötley Crüe songbook.
On a visit to Nashville in the spring of 2019 I got to address this first hand and discovered that Country music is, well, not just Country anymore! Standing side by side in America’s ‘Music City’ is Thrash Metal acts, acoustic singer-songwriters, balls to the wall rockers, and a few traditional Country artists. It is with no surprise the house band at Nudies nightclub plays all of these styles. We had the opportunity to check them out at the club before we visited the Grand Ole Opry for a show headlined by Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, that also featured traditional acts, certified Country superstars (Ricky Scaggs, Crystal Gayle, Josh Turner), veteran songwriters (Phil Vassar), as well as fresh young talent that can only be described as Pop (Dee White), Rock and Blues (Elizabeth Cook). We capped off the weekend with a jaunt to the Ryman, where we saw Americana artist Amos Lee who literally took us to church with a Gospel tinged climax featuring a host of local stars. This is certainly not the Country music your papa is talking ’bout.
With this in mind I have still been following my Classic Rock favorites and anyone else that has been influenced by the golden age of Rock ‘n’ Roll (not that there were many releases, or much to talk about, over the past two years in this genre but indeed we will investigate all the same).
First up, let’s take a look at the #1 selling record by the master of Pop-Rock. Paul McCartney’s Egypt Station, a double album rolled out in 3 parts, probably hit the top spot in the charts because of the way we stream or purchase music in today’s world, and the big publicity machine behind it, not because this recording is chock full of stellar compositions. The standard edition of the music was released in September of 2018, with the double disc Explorers Edition coming 8 months later. Just recently, in November, an EP from the sessions was released as well. Now, being a fan I (of course) purchased them all, and if you cherry pick the choice cuts from each you can secure yourself with almost a standard length album of decent tracks, but really only a couple of songs stand out as Macca classics; “Dominoes” which is driven by the infectious beat of Abe Laboriel Jr.’s drumming, and the ballad “I Don’t Know.” Other tracks got some attention, but really do we need to hear 77 year old Sir Paul crooning I just wanna fuh you? The song is catchy enough and would have been just fine with I just wanna love you (and would have been a lot more radio friendly). I give him an average rating here. ♫ ♪
Both Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Rosanne Cash, the daughter of music icon Johnny Cash, released new music with very satisfying results this past year, as did the reformed Matthews Southern Comfort. If you’ve always liked these artists, just buy their new stuff. I mean, how many times can you listen to the guitar solo of “Sultans of Swing” anyway? $$$
One record that took me by surprise is the latest solo album from Nick Heyward, front-man of 80’s Pop-Rockers Haircut 100. At his best he sounds like all four Beatles together with a bit of Badfinger thrown in. Recorded in Forida it has a sunny disposition and I’d say this one is a keeper. ☼
Speaking of Badfinger, the sole surviving member of the original band, Joey Molland, will be releasing new music sometime this year. The new recording, produced by Mark Hudson (Hudson Brothers, Ringo Starr), features guest appearances from Julian Lennon and Paul McCartney & Wings drummer Steve Holley. There is a very good possibility that this will be released under the Badfinger banner and not a Joey Molland solo disc. Stay tuned. ☺
On the reissue front, the deluxe editions of The Beatles’ catalog continues to fascinate with studio recordings that make you feel you are right there in the room with the Fab Four. Fleetwood Mac’s deluxe of the first recordings with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham is a bit spotty. The production of the original tracks were always crystal clear and the new mixes and alternative versions are even better, but the accompanying disc of live material (which I’ve owned bootlegs of since 1977) just don’t live up to the hype. With modern technology they just could have been so much cleaner.
It has always been interesting to me how music finds me, as opposed to me finding music. One of the better tracks that recently discovered me is a song called “Love Bless America” by Isaac Aragon. This cat is a local sensation from Albuquerque, N.M. that I read about in – of all places – New Mexico Magazine (not the most popular publication in America), but I checked him out on YouTube and then downloaded the track. You should do the same.
Finally, the one guy who continues to amaze me over and over is Willie Nile. Willie has been on a roll as of late and has released a string of discs that makes me think, ‘Is Willie Nile the last real Rocker standing?’ In three years he released three discs worth of real Rock ‘n’ Roll. Electric in your face songs, finger picking acoustic ballads, lyrics that remind you of Springsteen and Dylan on great days, Ramone’s crunch played in tune, you name it – it’s in there. His latest Children of Paradise is top notch. It’s going down as my favorite this time around. A Royal Flush. ♠♠♠♠♠
One last one, before I go, is the new record of duets from Sheryl Crow. Always someone who I thought to be a worthy singer and player with impeccable taste, I never found her to be overtly great. On Threads she enlists a wide ranging gang to work with which elevates the recordings to new heights. From the 70’s styled stomper of “Good Ol’ Days” co-written with Joe Walsh, a cover of Dylan’s “Everything is Broken” with Jason Isbell, an updated version of her own “Redemption Day” featuring the late Johnny Cash (a must listen), and appearances from Rock and Country stars alike (Stevie Nicks, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Brandi Carlisle, Chris Stapleton, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, et. al) this record rocks. ♥♥♥♥
There were other releases that had a track or two worthy of a listen or three (Alan Parsons, Jon Anderson of Yes), which kind of ticks me off, because if artists were still making albums with a set time of 45 minutes we (as music consumers) would be getting better quality material, but with this never ending streaming/downloading BS most modern artists don’t know when to reign it in, and the established artists know how to milk your cash. Let’s just hope the pendulum is swinging and will return to some semblance of balance soon.
Here’s to 2020, my friends (and, oh yeah, keep rockin’).
Copyright 2020 © Michael A. Cimino
Preferred Playlist: Nick Heyward – Baby Blue Sky, Rosanne Cash – Not Many Miles to Go, Elizabeth Cook – Exodus of Venus, Mark Knopfler – Just a Boy away from Home, Bruce Springsteen – There Goes My Miracle, Dee White – Wherever you Go, Amos Lee – Little Light, Gary Clark Jr. – When I’m Gone, Isaac Aragon – Love Bless America, Willie Nile – Looking for Someone, Matthews Southern Comfort – Crystals on the Glass, Paul McCartney – I don’t Know, Sheryl Crow & Lukas Nelson – Travelers on this Road, Heather Findlay – Cactus, Willie Nile – Children of Paradise, Rosanne Cash – The Parting Glass.
The Year End Wrap Up
Not surprisingly, 2017 shaped up to be another mixed bag of stellar songs from our heroes that most have never heard. You might not know it, but last year there was actually some great new music from major stars, including Fleetwood Mac, Ray Davies of the Kinks, former Beatle Ringo Starr, Van Morrison, Chris Hillman of the Byrds, Rusty Young from Poco, and the final releases from the late greats Leon Russell and Gregg Allman.
With so many of the original members of these heritage bands either passed on or in retirement, all of these discs were released as solo efforts. Pop music for the last decade or so has been in the ‘let’s grab some cash and go’ mode of fabricated teen idols and executive producers who call the shots, forcing real musicians and classic songwriters to the back seat. Luckily, for most of these aging rockers their hindquarters are lined with gold and soft down pillows.
Additionally, there were several new recordings of note that were released just as the year ended, which makes one ponder why every national trade paper starts compiling their ‘best of’ articles at the end of summer. By the time they get to the newsstand around Thanksgiving they’ve missed the boat on some very important releases (Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin included). Likewise, it seems the majors forget about the recordings that were released quite early in the year.
One that stands out is Pat Benatar’s single “Shine,” written and recorded specifically for the Women’s March on Washington in January of 2017. “Shine” features a more mature Benatar continuing the girl-power anthems she started in the late 70’s. Beginning quietly, the song reaches a crescendo with the hard-hitting lyrics, ‘We won’t be silent, we raise our voices/Dignity, pride, these are our choices/Never go back, only go forward/Mothers, sisters, lovers and daughters/We’ll shine, yes we’ll shine.’ It certainly will be interesting to hear what Benatar has to say on her next full length issue.
When the classic 70’s lineup of Fleetwood Mac got back together this past year for another run of sellout tours mastermind Lindsey Buckingham was ready to unleash a backlog of Pop-Rock gems he had written, some with returning vocalist/pianist Christine McVie. Unfortunate for fans, the eternal whirling dervish Stevie Nicks took a pass on the recording sessions stating, “I don’t think there’s any reason to spend a year and an amazing amount of money on a record that, even if it has great things, isn’t going to sell. If the music business were different, I might feel different.” It may sound stingy, slapping the face of devotees who made her rich and famous, but she has a point.
However, that attitude is the very reason why many from the baby boomer generation are lagging in the sales department. You haven’t seen the record sales of Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Dylan, et al., slow down – mainly because they have tapped into their core audience and are not afraid to take chances.
For music lovers who are willing to take the time to enrich themselves with something new, the Fleetwood Mac crew have quite the surprise up their sleeve. Released under the title Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie (probably having more to do with record company politics, then identification tags) the music sparkles like 1977 déjà vu.
Available as an MP3 download, CD, or 180 gram audiophile vinyl it is pure Mac mastery from the moment you drop the needle. And I’ll be damned if that isn’t a sample of Stevie Nick’s trademark ah’s in the middle of the track “In My World.”
Recorded at Konk Studios in London with the Country-Rock group Jayhawks as his backing band, Americana is the latest in a run of strong late-career efforts by Ray Davies, The Kinks main singer and songwriter. This time around, Ray reverts back to his 70’s heyday of concept albums with a modern theme – in this case his adventures travelling the USA and his fascination with American culture. Complete with spoken word bits, big Broadway choruses, and plenty of good ol’ English cheek, there is (as always) a heavy nod to his Kinks/Rock ‘n’ Roll past. Not to be missed is his nostalgia-tinged “Rock and Roll Cowboys,” a surefire candidate for the All Time Ray Davies canon.
At 77 Ringo Starr still loves to Rock ‘n’ Roll. On his 19th solo disc, Give More Love, Ringo continues to pound those pagan skins to stomping Rockers like the opening track “On the Road Again,” featuring pals Paul McCartney and Toto’s Steve Lukather. As usual there are some tender heart-felt ballads here as well, but it’s when Ringo digs into his Country and Rock-a-billy roots he really hits his stride. Like some of the other discs Ringo has released in recent years this may not rate as his best work, but for long-time fans there is plenty for celebration.
If you have been missing that peaceful easy feeling of early 70’s California Folk-Rock look no further than the two new solo discs from Rusty Young (Poco), and Chris Hillman (The Byrds). These are two of the finest recordings released in 2017. Hillman’s Bidin’ My Time was one of the last recordings to feature Tom Petty before his untimely death. Petty not only produced the entire disc, but appears as a sideman as well. It is the closest we’ll probably ever get to a Byrds reunion, as Roger McGuinn and David Crosby both appear and lay down stellar harmonies and guitar work. Young’s first ever solo, Waitin’ for the Sun, showcases his Don Henley-like tenor with startling results. Each track is a gem of its own. Sincerely, don’t pass these by.
Discs that were issued late in the year came from heartland-rocker Bob Seger, England’s ever shape-shifting Robert Plant, Ireland’s favorite son Van Morrison, and the electric contingent of Strawbs – now back in full-on Progressive mode.
For fans, none of these discs should be missed. For Cottage Views, Van Morrison’s output of late has been very satisfying – beginning with his album of duets in 2015, the follow-up Keep Me Singing, and 2017’s Roll with the Punches. Punches is Morrison’s ode to the Blues which influenced his early career and features newly written tunes as well as classics like “Stormy Monday” and “Ride On, Josephine.” Jeff Beck, always distinctive and tasty, lends some heavy lead guitar and guest vocals come from Chris Farlowe and Georgie Fame. Van doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either. He has already released two discs of Jazz oriented material for 2018.
Finally, coming out just before Christmas, was the latest release from Strawbs, a group with a history that dates back more than fifty years. In various incarnations they have performed and recorded Bluegrass, Folk, Rock, Progressive Rock and a little bit of everything in-between. Main singer/songwriter Dave Cousins, and longtime lead guitarist Dave Lambert literally shred on the new disc, entitled The Ferryman’s Curse. They are accompanied by the rhythm section of Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez (no strangers to Strawbs fans) and newcomer Dave Bainbridge (of the Celtic Prog band Iona) on keyboards. The subject material returns to the dark, Gothic, style of their early electric works such as Ghosts, and “The Vision of the Lady of the Lake,” with lengthy tracks that can only be considered intense. Ferryman’s Curse at first listen was a tangle to get through. Once immersed the charms presented themselves and amongst the earnestness are several moments of true-Strawbs diversity; pretty acoustic numbers, rock-steady Blues, the playful “Bats and Swallows,” and a classic Progressive canticle “When the Spirit Moves,” complete with tempo changes, elevating musical passages, and Fernandez’s ringing percussion.
As with all things, Pop music is cyclical and – as mentioned earlier – the current airwaves are bursting with pre-fab product for youth to absorb and discard (unfortunately, we aren’t even getting a few ‘one-hit-wonders’ that would be fun to listen to in 15 years). But times will change and there are a few writers out there that are showing potential (Harry Styles) and some bands that won’t let Rock ‘n’ Roll kick the proverbial bucket just yet (Drive By Truckers, The War on Drugs).
In many ways, it is a shame that the generation ‘who changed the world’ is settling for mediocrity and retreating into the revolving juke-box of hits from their youth. True artists need to create, and certainly the aging baby boomers hailed the songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s as ‘artists.’ They devoted billions of words in articles, books, and films to demand the world accept the importance of Pop Culture, and yet now they stand on the sideline bored and indifferent. Why? Because they have been beaten down by ‘the man’ and conformed? Because they realize that the mighty dollar is more important than the ideal? Because they are pleasantly comfortable and it’s easier to sit on their fat ass than get up and make a statement? I don’t know the answer, but I will continue to search for it.
As time marches on, there will be less and less original songs coming from our musical heroes (and the media is not about to change and keep us up to date about it) but the good news is that rumor has it that later this year we will hear new music from Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and a solo record from Yes’ Jon Anderson – a project he said he started 27 years ago. Let’s hope they will have something to say to us all.
Copyright 2018 © Michael A. Cimino
All About Bob
With the political landscape filled with mines ready to explode at any given moment one has to wonder where to look for a glimmer of hope in this world, where to go for justice and sanctuary, and to whom we turn to give our voice, and our votes, the impact they deserve. Damned be those who use social media for playing the game of divide and conquer, filling friends and foes alike with so much hatred that they can no longer see eye to eye or even see the other as human. If prejudice, hatred, fear, racism, sexism, and intolerance can be brought to new generations by bigoted fools then so can unity, love, peace, and happiness.
Several years ago, when interviewing Graham Nash I asked him a simple question. “Do you still believe, by raising our voice in song, we can change the world?” I asked. His answer was just as simple. “Absolutely,” he said.
It is rare that someone like Graham Nash continues to have such honorable ideals. As technology zooms past us, and vast changes are on the daily horizon, we realize that some things change very little, some things do not change at all, and some peoples urge to dominate and control is unstoppable. The fact that Nash maintains his commitment to who he was as a young man, speaking out against poverty, war, and the betrayal of mankind, is remarkable. The words, and songs, that he, his peers, and his partners put to paper 50 years ago still resonate. The ink may have dried but it has not faded. For some, many of those songs have become beacons of light in a dark world. Once asked about the influence of new recordings from aging performers, Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of a generation of revolutionaries, is credited with saying ‘the message will reach those who need to hear it.’
Looking back at 2017, there is no finer time to revisit the writings of Dylan and reflect on the striking words that influenced millions. In addition to the new book Why Bob Dylan Matters by Professor Richard F. Thomas of Harvard University, who teaches a class on Dylan as well as classical poets Homer, Ovid, and Virgil, come two new full length recordings of Dylan songs by two of New York’s finest voices.
Positively Bob is a collection of acoustic and electric Dylan tunes from rocker Willie Nile, a stalwart of New York City stages. Since Nile’s appearance on the scene some 40 years ago he has been hailed as the natural extension of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. It is only in recent years that Nile has begun to hit his stride as a prolific songwriter, releasing a succession of compelling Rock ‘n’ Roll records that include topical statements, including his ode to 9/11 “Cell Phones Ringing In the Pockets of the Dead” (voted song of the year by Rockland World Radio) and last year’s “Citibank Nile.”
Joan Osborne, a NYC resident since adulthood and best known for her Top 5 hit “One of Us,” is a talented songwriter and the possessor of one of America’s finest singing voices. Over the past three decades she has recorded albums touting an array of styles, including Pop, Rock, Soul, R&B, Blues, Country, and her own brand of vocalese that has landed her several diverse gigs from the Grateful Dead to Motown’s Funk Brothers. On Songs of Bob Dylan Osborne tackles all of the aforementioned styles on a variety of Dylan standouts.
While both artists mostly stick to well known songs there is a handful of tunes so expertly delivered that they break these beauties out of obscurity, particularly Osbourne’s interpretation of “High Water” and Nile’s version of “Abandoned Love.” More importantly, it is the inspired, hard hitting, renditions of “The Times They are A-Changing” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” from Nile that slam home the message that we should keep Dylan’s missive in today’s world.
Similarly, Osborne takes on one of the most bitter lyrics ever recorded with a stinging cover of “Masters of War.” Joan’s version rivals Eddie Vedder’s intense classic, with pour-sugar-on-the-wound vocals that deliver the grand memo that most Americans would love to shove down the throat of every lying politician.
Part of the real allure of these recordings is that these collections are not entirely doom and gloom protest extravaganzas, and there is plenty of delicate confections for the ear. Osborne delivers pretty piano ballad interpretations of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and the whimsical “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” while Nile offers up a delightful acoustic shuffle on Dylan’s cracked love letter “I Want You.”
One of the true highlights is the rollicking “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 (Everybody Must Get Stoned)” interpreted by both artists here. While Joan takes a slow and sexy Blues approach Willie eschews the circus like atmosphere of the original and delivers a straight ahead Rock rendition; without a doubt the best version of this song ever recorded. And for anyone who has spent any time in a downtown NYC watering hole, please check out the official video of Willie and his band partying at the Bowery Electric. It’s a must see.
However, the meat and bones of these collected works are about people not being left behind. For those who feel they have been forgotten, or washed away, or erased by bureaucratic exclusionists who attempt to vanquish what they do not understand, these songs give voice to all who exist in this torn apart world that we have built.
These songs are, once again, a statement for our times. These songs force us to ask questions, and to take action. Do we really have to ask ‘Why does Bob Dylan matter?’ The answer, my friends, is in the songs. In fact, Nile addresses that question, in his inimitable Dylan-like voice, when he charges through the final stanza of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” biting on the words that demand our nation’s attention:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
It’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall.
So, no matter what side you’re on, which path you choose, or whatever cross you bare… this is why Bob Dylan matters.
Copyright 2018 © 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