April 24, 2013

The Joy Formidable – A Glorious Sonic Boom

“The mouse that roared” is a phrase that comes to mind after experiencing The Joy Formidable in a live setting.  That a three-piece band comprising mostly just one guitar, bass, and drums can produce such a massive wall of sound is both a pleasant and bludgeoning surprise.  What’s more remarkable is that amid this glorious sonic boom, the band coaxes so much melody and produces infectious songs that have an obvious pop sensibility.

 Opening with Cholla, the first single off their latest album Wolf’s Law, the band launched an aural attack that rarely abated.  The few moments of respite came when bassist Rhydian Dafydd played keyboard intros or acoustic guitar (Silent Treatment).  Lead singer and guitarist Ritzy Bryan produces much of the aforementioned roar, but it’s Dafydd and drummer Matthew James Thomas who keep the songs from derailing into noise with their precise and surprising groove.  Smartly, in a live setting Dafydd’s bass is turned up in the mix to give the song parts clarity and structure, and not just a low-end thumping.  While Bryan provides a great focal point to the band and Dafydd seems to navigate the proceedings, it’s Thomas who brings the fun rock & roll madness.  Watching his enthusiasm, technique, and humor (!), one can’t help but think of John Bonham, Keith Moon, Tommy Lee, and Animal from the Muppet Show.


Having seen them once before on their last tour in a relatively small church that doubled as a rock venue (!!!), it was fascinating to see their adaptability and growth as a band in a real rock club setting.  Their songs and musical ability are a given.  However, they upped their game by incorporating Rock Show elements like video projections and an omnipresent wolf logo whose lights changed colors.   

Musicians and non-musicians alike have an obnoxious penchant to compare every band to some other band – “Oh, so-and-so sound just like (fill in the blank)…”  From the band’s perspective this can be complimentary, derogatory, or sometimes just plain baffling.  Compliment or not, it’s often unfair to the band because it ignores the amount of personal creativity and work that went into producing the music, and reduces it to a comparison.  I make this admission as a disclaimer because I’m about to do exactly what I just got done railing…The Joy Formidable are reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins at their best…and what Sonic Youth tried to sound like (but never could).  I say it as a supreme compliment.

9:30 Club, Washington, DC, Set List

April 10, 2013

Fleetwood Mac: Living Up To The Legend

All too often, the legend of a band is better than the reality.  Luckily, for the nine-year old in me who first fell in love with Stevie Nicks from the gatefold of the Rumours album while listening to Dreams on a record player in my cousin’s basement all those years ago, Fleetwood Mac is a band that lives up to its legend.  Their performance at DC’s Verizon Center was stellar. 

The signature Mac sound remains wholly intact with no regard to the calendar.  The unmistakable rhythm section of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie is still one of rock’s all-time finest, as the two practice what Keith Richards refers to as “the ancient art of weaving.”  Obviously, there’s also Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – soulmates who still harmonize the most endearing love songs one minute, and deliver the most viciously blistering barbs to each other the next.  The internal drama, soap opera, and emotional baggage also all remain palpably present.  Although with the passage of time, the band seems to approach their music and its inherent baggage with a sense of perspective, maturity, acceptance, and a whole lot of humor.  

A triple shot from Rumours – Second Hand News, The Chain, and Dreams – set the pace for the next two hours and forty minutes, as they performed hit after hit flawlessly from arguably the greatest catalog of the ’70s So-Cal Sound (…although The Eagles might take exception to that title).  Aside from all the ubiquitous hits, the band also debuted a new song, Sad Angel, that sounded as familiar and comfortable as any of their classics.  Buckingham’s solo turn with Big Love highlighted the fact that he might be the most underrated guitarist in rock.  Nicks took a non-Fleetwood Mac spotlight with her ‘80s solo hit Stand Back.  The evening’s best surprise was a pair of songs from the pre-Fleetwood Mac Buckingham-Nicks album.  The fact that hardcore fans have to resort to YouTube to hear this out-of-print pop gem of an album is criminal.       

The one obvious quibble with Fleetwood Mac’s show is that they overlooked all the Christine McVie hits.  While it would’ve been a fitting tribute to the retired McVie if they covered her songs, perhaps the omission also is recognition that she can’t be replaced.

It should be noted that the evening’s MVP Award goes to Fleetwood Mac’s sound engineers.  While arenas like the Verizon Center are designed primarily for sporting events – not for acoustics – on this evening, the band sounded like they were performing in a controlled studio.  To my recollection, no band has ever sounded so good in what’s essentially a hockey arena.  The sound engineers achieved perfect separation and balance between instruments and vocals on the loud songs, and on the quiet songs, you could hear a pin drop onstage.

Legend aside, perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s greatest achievement of the evening was living up to the wide-eyed expectations of my inner nine-year old. 
Set List

January 28, 2013

Awthentik and The FIF: Who Said You Can’t Pull Off Hip-Hop Live?

My favorite musical partner-in-crime and I decided spontaneously on a recent Thursday night to visit The 8x10 in Baltimore, MD to drop in on the local music scene.  Not knowing at all what to expect – perhaps the best way to discover new music – we watched rapper/producer/engineer Awthentik front a band called The FIF...and tear the little playhouse down!

My long-standing complaint about 99 percent of hip-hop artists – no matter what level of fame and notoriety they’ve achieved – is that they can’t pull it off live.  To hide their inability to perform live, most resort to bringing out an entourage of 35 of their closest buddies onstage and yelling shout-outs or the incessant and oh-so-original, “Wave yo’ hands in the air…”  At best (or is that worst?), they rap to pre-recorded backing tracks.  I’m looking at you, Kanye!

Awthentik and The FIF belong to that rare one percent.

As a rapper, Awthentik has all the flair, flow, and swagger of the biggest of ‘em – Jay-Z, Naz, Common, Q-Tip, etc.  The five-piece FIF, backing up the rhymes, are super-tight and super-funky and…here’s what sets them apart from most others playing in a small club….they sound HUGE without over-playing or sledgehammering you with sheer volume.  The FIF achieve the perfect laid-back-but-intense funk backdrop for Awthentik’s raps with just the right amount of modern-day keyboards/sampling over vintage Soul Train-worthy guitar, bass, and drums.

Awthentik’s website claims that his music “brings a fresh approach with a recognizable flavor from the ‘Golden Era’ of hip-hop.”  I have to disagree just a little bit because….when Awthentik and The FIF are rockin’ the party, this is the Golden era of hip-hop.

January 7, 2013

A Love Letter to 1975

Can anyone seriously make the claim that a particular year in music was better or more important than another?  Given the subjective nature of the subject, probably not.  At best, it makes for a great semi-drunken debate among your music-nerd friends. 

All that said, 1975 was the greatest year in modern music!

Sure, as in any other year, there was a lot of chart-topping pop cotton candy like Love Will Keep Us Together (Captain & Tennille) and Kung Fu Fighting (Carl Douglas).  However, 1975 also produced:  One Of These Nights (Eagles), Captain Fantastic & Brown Dirt Cowboy (Elton John), Physical Graffiti (Led Zeppelin), Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen), Blood On The Tracks (Bob Dylan), Venus & Mars (Paul McCartney & Wings), Welcome To My Nightmare  (Alice Cooper), Dark Horse (George Harrison), Rock & Roll (John Lennon), Blow By Blow (Jeff Beck), A Night At The Opera (Queen), Toys In The Attic (Aerosmith), Alive (KISS), Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac)…

I could actually go on, but you get the idea.  Just the albums I’ve listed are either one of the artists’ career bests or, in some cases, the start of an ascent to some of their best works.  Some of these albums also have proven to be seminal to an entire generation of musicians in the ensuing years.  If all this sounds like the hyperbolic love letter to a year in music from a writer getting on in years, then I defy you to look no further than your local Classic Rock or Oldies station.  Unlike almost any other year, songs from 1975 dominate the regular playlists of these stations on any given day in 2013.

Even bubble-gum pop reached an odd sort of zenith in 1975 in that an inordinate number of those songs has outlived their successors in the hearts and memories of people and with radio station program directors – Rhinestone Cowboy (Glen Campbell), My Eyes Adored You (Frankie Valli), Sister Golden Hair (America), Mandy (Barry Manilow), Cat’s In The Cradle (Harry Chapin) – are you singing some of these songs to yourself already?...

…And then there was disco.  By 1975, disco had reached underground phenomenon status and was just bubbling under the national consciousness, but hadn’t quite skyrocketed into the decadent Tony Manero-loving coke-fuelled stratosphere, and was still a few years from its inevitable Disco Duck-ie comedown.  Yet at the moment that the genre was about to reach the national zeitgeist, it produced some of its most stellar and longest-lasting hits…Love To Love You Baby (Donna Summer), Lady Marmalade (LaBelle), Jive Talkin’ (Bee Gees), Pick Up The Pieces (Average White Band), The Hustle (Van McCoy)…and if you're too young to know some of these songs by name, trust me, you'll recognize them within the first few notes of hearing them.      

Almost 40 years on, the midpoint of the much-maligned 1970s has all the feel of a watershed moment in music when even disposable pop still retained a sense of art and craftsmanship, and rock was at that very final and purely artistic moment before it all became a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporations.    

Sure, there’s been great music produced in the past four decades.  Even in today’s short-attention span, fractured, download culture, when albums are novel dinosaurs, great music is still being produced.  However, we may never see another year like 1975 when pop, rock, and even novelty hits, all seemed to reach a simultaneous crossroad of artistic merit, AM-Radio Gold, and polyester tail-feather shaking grooviness.

August 7, 2012

When You’re Used To Wanting The Best And Always Getting The Best…

I purposely waited a few weeks before I reviewed the opening night of what’s dubbed The Tour – Motley Crue/KISS in Bristow, VA.  Before I sat down to write the review, I wanted to see YouTube clips of both bands and read accounts from subsequent stops on The Tour.  Having let a few weeks pass, I now am ready to write…

I should say at the outset that I have been a KISS fan for 33 years.  They are my second favorite band of all time.  This was the twelfth time I’ve seen them in concert.  They have always been one of the best live acts I have ever seen.  Through the years, the stage shows have varied in their level of theater and the set lists have ranged from a concentration on old songs to new songs to everything in between.

This was my first Motley Crue concert.  They’re a band who I've grown to respect as the years have gone by – in large part due to the Led Zeppelin-esque excesses recounted in their autobiography, The Dirt.  Of the ‘80s Pop Metal bands, they have certainly turned out to be one of the best – both in terms of survival and catalog of songs.  Motley Crue are the bastard sons of KISS….

…How to say this….

Motley Crue blew away KISS.
The Crue came onstage in a procession through the audience accompanied by Medieval Motley Crue flags, stilt walkers, and masked henchmen in orange jumpsuits who unsettlingly resembled Clockwork Orange Droogs ready to perform an evening of Ultra-Violence on the audience.  The stage motif was industrial-warehouse-meets-madhouse-circus-amusement-park-meets-Hell.  From the opening strains of Saints of Los Angeles through Wild Side and Shout At The Devil and Looks That Kill and Dr. Feelgood and Girls, Girls, Girls and other staples, right on through to the Kickstart My Heart closer, the show felt like a fiery rollercoaster gone wild.  About the only time, the Motley rollercoaster let the audience catch their breaths was during Home Sweet Home.  Throughout the controlled and orchestrated mayhem, the Motley Droogs set off balls of flame and fired water rifles, two buxom aerial acrobats gyrated on floor-to-ceiling ropes like strippers on a pole, and two more hotties sang back-up vocals. 

Photo courtesy Jeff Ingenloff
The ringmasters of this circus in hell were lead vocalist Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx, guitarist/Cousin It Mick Mars, and drummer extraordinaire Tommy Lee.  If The Dirt chronicled their years of sloppy, drugged-out excess, then The Tour finds the Crue in the shape of their lives.  What a difference sobriety makes.  Vince hit notes that he never could in tours past.  Nikki maintained his Motley creative puppet master role, brandishing a flame-throwing bass, Mick’s solos were spot-on….and then there’s Tommy…

Tommy Lee deserves a paragraph to himself.  Don’t let the wild man, vapid, Heather Locklear/Pam Anderson/porn star ladykiller history and reputation distract you.  Tommy plays drums like the virtuoso he is.  Even when other drum virtuosos solo, most of the audience takes the opportunity to visit the restrooms and beer counters.  Not Tommy Lee’s audience.  His drum solo was played to a back-up tape of house music composed by Tommy….Oh, and did I mention that his drums are on a circular rollercoaster?  Tommy strapped the wife of a military serviceman with him and took her on a 360-degree ride of her life. 

Motley Crue might just be the best live band to come out of the ‘80s alive.

…Now there’s the thorny issue of KISS…

They descended onstage from a spark-spewing platform on the venue’s ceiling.  The stage resembled a lit-up Las Vegas set of bleachers.  The floor-to-ceiling KISS logo was video projected, and alternated with celluloid close-ups of the band.  There were enough lights, fire, and explosions to awaken and destroy a major American city.  Paul Stanley zip-lined over the audience to a revolving auxiliary stage in the middle of the crowd.  Gene Simmons flew up to a mini-stage atop the lighting rig.  Guitarist/Ace Frehley impersonator Tommy Thayer shot sparks from his guitar.  Drummer/Peter Criss impersonator Eric Singer levitated behind his massive drums.  A confetti blizzard covered the audience like they were in the “Canyon of Heroes” in NYC.
Photo courtesy Jeff Ingenloff
KISS incorporated all the staging highlights of previous tours into one massive bludgeoning feast for the senses.  Yet something was amiss.  Perhaps the culprit was Motley Crue’s stellar set that preceded them, set the bar far too high, and ultimately stole the show.  By comparison, the KISS stage seemed oddly less theatric and – dare I say it – slightly more subdued and lower budget.  No.  The culprit was something far more basic and seemingly insidious.

What most critics and non-fans always missed about KISS was that all the makeup and pyrotechnics was really just icing on the cake.  Behind the circus was a great rock band.  Like the critics and non-fans, on this evening, the members of KISS seemed to forget that as well.  The weakest aspect of their set was what should have been one of their strongest weapons – the songs.  For a band with such a deep well of classic songs, on this opening night, they picked only a handful of their most perennial numbers; padded it with too many mediocre songs; wasted too much time on unnecessary guitar, drums, and bass solos; and worst of all, steamrolled through the songs in an abbreviated set that even felt rushed.  Their other usual strongest link proved to be somewhat less than that as well – Paul Stanley.  Here is one of rock’s greatest singers, yet he only sang lead vocals on five of the thirteen songs in the set.  That might have been fine, but what replaced the songs he could have performed were plodding, mediocre songs by Gene Simmons – not one of rock’s greatest singers.  In an already abbreviated set, there was no reason for Simmons to sing God Of Thunder AND War Machine – essentially the same songs.  I Love It Loud could have been shelved as well. 

There also was some question about the state of Stanley’s voice.  Hardcore KISS fans know that 2009’s Sonic Boom album featured a slightly raspier Stanley.  During the band’s last tour in 2010, Stanley’s voice was very hit-or-miss depending on the night you happened to catch them.  Belying a larger issue, Stanley underwent throat surgery last year.  On this opening night, Stanley seemed to struggle on the vocals in spots.  He didn’t help himself by straining to do vocal gymnastics during his infamous between-song raps.

Perhaps what was most disappointing about the show was the band’s seemingly blatant display of insincerity.  Just before the climactic Rock & Roll All Nite, Stanley announced that they were willing to play all night, but would have to cut their set short because of Bristow, VA’s curfew law.  It was disappointing news to hear at the time because the audience would have liked the party to last longer. However, having seen the band’s set list from subsequent shows, it’s now apparent that the show was not cut short.  They play the same 13 songs every night…and Stanley uses the same “excuse” to explain away their short set.  In fact, it seems like a tacit admission that even they realize that true fans are going to feel a bit short-changed. 

Hey, Paul.  Why not just say good night, and not make it seem like you were going to play more songs, but Johnny Law wouldn’t let you?

Stanley may not be lying, but he does seem a bit disingenuous.

I realize that I sound like an insatiable, spoiled child.  Did KISS put on an elaborate show?  Yes.  Did they play big hits?  Yes.  Did I have a good time?  Absolutely!    However, for the nearly four decades that KISS has been playing, they’ve set their own bar – and the bar of others – so high, that anything short of the moon seems like a letdown.  With Motley Crue reaching and surpassing that same bar, KISS just seemed a slight bit underwhelming and as if they were going through the motions.

Postscript:  Check out the YouTube clips of KISS at their backstage meet-and-greets.  For the lucky few who’ve paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of an audience with the Pope – er, I mean, KISS – the band plays an unmasked mini-semi-acoustic set of KISS classics.  Perhaps if they’d incorporated those songs into their official set…