Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Me-Thinks' "Mr. Dude" b/w "Rock Deaf"

We've been playing these shitty songs
Way too loud, way too long...
If you're into deafness,
We'll put you on the guest list.

The mighty Me-Thinks -- for whom I have shilled merchandise, and will again -- have always been more than they appeared.

While Ray Liberio -- with whom I've played recreationally in a "proto-punk repertory band" since 2006, and will again -- is the consummate frontman, personable to a fault, and a multi-instrumental triple-threat who also kicks the traps with Vorvon and FTW, it's hardly his show alone. Much of the Me-Thinks' concept -- their droll, self-deprecating humor (including the fake interview transcript they supplied me with after my first encounter with them, way back in 2002), stage presentation (a smoke machine! capes!), as well as their somewhat skewed marketing -- originates with guitarist/smoke machine operator/Cheap Trick fan Marlin Von Bungy. (I finally realized why Marlin doesn't use a wah-wah pedal: You can't, while standing on one leg.) And back in the early days, their secret songwriting weapon was drummer Will "Boyo" Risinger (now in exile in Arkansas), who penned lyrics and provided Brian Wilson-esque "spiritual guidance" for this new 7-incher.

The secret ingredient in the current Me-Thinks lineup, however, is Johnny Trashpockets, ex-E.T.A., who joined two years ago after his predecessor on second guitar, Mike Bandy (ex-Dragworms and Ray's original guitar teacher), departed due to health issues. (Mike's recently been back on the boards with Groom Lake Racers.) It was a move that just made sense, since Trashpockets -- a somewhat menacing rockaroll Predator onstage, as smart and funny as the rest of the cats offstage -- was a longtime friend and fan, and was already playing with Me-Thinks drummer Trucker Jon Simpson in One Fingered Fist. Stoked by his energy and enthusiasm, Fort Worth's self-styled "shittiest band" have stepped up the pace of their live activity, and produced what Boyo insists (and I concur) is their finest recorded artifact yet.

At least some of the credit here goes to Jorts Richardson (Son of Stan), who insisted on keeping the Me-Thinks away from the booth during mixing, as a result of which Ray's barrel-chested, leather-lunged vocals -- a signature strength -- are up high in the mix for the first time evah. Instrumentally, their sound has never been so well captured: hard-edged and streamlined, with a relentless forward motion worthy of Motorhead, Radio Birdman, or Machine Head-era Deep Purple.

"Mr. Dude" is a tale of high school hi-jinks that winds its way through several sections and takes its title from the nom de plume of Calvin Abucejo, Ray's fellow "art criminal" in Pussyhouse Propaganda, creators of the picture sleeve artwork (a Kiss Destroyer homage on one side, 3D wonderment on the flip) for this manhole cover-like slab of turquoise vinyl. "Rock Deaf" -- the source of the inspirational couplets up top -- is an anthem to excess in the manner of The Make Mine a Double E.P.'s "Party Boy." While that 2007 release remains the "classic" Me-Thinks, this latest document distills their essence better than any other recording.

But don't take my word for it. The release show (with the Hickoids and Duell) is skedded for Saturday, September 10th, at Lola's. You know what to do.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Josh Alan's "Sixty, Goddammit"

I feel like Josh Alan Friedman is my slightly older, way cooler brother from another mother. Both Lawn Guyland expats living in Tejas (he from more cosmopolitan Nassau County, me from bumfuck backwater Suffolk County), both got our rockaroll baptisms in Noo Yawk (he at the Fillmore East, me via radio and rekkids), both muso-scribes (it's always humbling to encounter folks who do what you do better than you do). His "autobiographical novel" Black Cracker captures very well the time and place we grew up in, when he was the only white kid in Long Island's last segregated school, and I remember an Italo-American kid, when we were on the verge of getting bused out of the neighborhood, telling me that "The niggizz is gonna stab you through the seats on the bus." His Tell the Truth Until They Bleed contains some of the very best music writing of which I am personally aware, including an epic interview with Tin Pan Alley songwriting genius Jerry Leiber and profiles of Tommy Shannon and the late Keith Ferguson that'll make you weep, if you've any heart at all.

So the arrival in my mailbox this week of a package with Josh's name in the return address was quite welcome. Sixty, Goddammit is his first album of "atomic acoustic blues-funk-rock" in 15 years, and it's a corker. (For my two cents, the best of its four predecessors is 1997's Blacks 'n' Jews, out of print on CD but digitally available from the usual places since 2009.) Mostly recorded at home with surprisingly pristine clarity and juiced in post-production by ace Austin engineer David Rosenblad, Sixty, Goddammit is chock full of flashy flatpicking, sardonic wiseguy vocalismo, lyrical wit, and only the finest blues and R&B root sources, run through the aforementioned Fillmore East filter. Which means that as acoustic bluesmen go, Josh Alan's a rocker. Think Steve Stills back when he was good; Josh's live-wire act has the same kind of built-in tension.

The tunes include several I've enjoyed at Josh's live performances for years -- in particular, "Down Home Girl," the slow, sultry Leiber and Stoller chestnut first waxed by Alvin "Shine" Robinson, and more famously on The Rolling Stones, Now!; and "Cat's Squirrel," which Dr. Isaiah Ross wouldn't have recognized once Eric Clapton (and Mick Abrahams!) got their hands on it, and which Josh manhandles in the same way he used to do Mr. Beck's Yardbirds-era showpiece, "Jeff's Boogie." (That is to say, with a degree of humor as well as flash.) Josh also essays an arrangement of Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" (the 'riginal of which my ex-wife probably still doesn't believe I want played at my funeral), and Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues," which shows just how closely related were bluegrass and Piedmont-style blues.

Josh's originals here -- "This Radio Don't Play Nothin' But the Blues," "I'm Blacker Than You," and "Street Fight" -- show a continuing interest in blues, race, and the seamy side of city life (which their author knows very well from the days he spent covering Times Square for Screw magazine in the years before it got Giulianified, Disneyfied, and North Dallas outdoor mall-ified). He also tackles cover material associated with Ray Charles ("What'd I Say"), Albert King and Cream ("Born Under A Bad Sign"), ZZ Top ("Tush"), and even Elvis Himself ("Mystery Train"). Next time I'm of a mind to hear white boy acoustic blues, instead of reaching for Sun Elvis or Dion on World Cafe, I might just throw Sixty, Goddammit on the box instead. So there.

Half Cleveland Live at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Once again, through the marvels of the intarweb, I was able to vicariously attend a gig by Akron, OH-based geezer hipsters Half Cleveland, in real time, this time via the Facebook page of Dolli Quattrocchi Gold, tech savvy bride of HC tunesmith-singer-guitarist-keyboardist Harvey Gold (who points out that her maiden name means "four eyes" in Italian). The occasion was an event curated by Devo founder/visual artist Mark Mothersbaugh, featuring Half Cleveland and their Rubber City homeskis the Numbers Band and Bizarros, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. (Never been there, but I once ate lunch with a cat who was, at the time, one of the top people in that organization, at a Thai place where the server helpfully provided me with chopsticks while bringing the two Jewish guys at the table silverware. Fun fact: Thais don't use chopsticks. Was I being profiled?)

As is their wont, the boys in Half Cleveland -- the current vehicle for Harvey and his former Tin Huey bandmate Chris Butler -- opened their historically-minded set with a cover: in this case, Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge" (which I once played in a band in Colorado in the winter of '79-'80; what were we thinking?), complete with Devonian headgear (Harvey gets extra points for knocking his own off at the end of the song) and a guest appearance from Booji Boy (or his twin). They continued with a couple of as-yet-unrecorded numbers, and had Numbers Band saxophonist Jack Kidney join them on Harvey's "Your Side of the Room." (My note says "Roxy meets Diddley." You get the idea.) Chris took the mic for his newie ("Thief") as well as "This Isn't Just A Car" from his '97 outing I Feel A Bit Normal Today.

Biz was gotten down to with a Tin Huey mini-set that revealed the Hueys as the prog band hiding in the new wave bin, and included "Squirm You Worm" (which Harvey dedicated to Muhammad Ali) and their epochal cover of Robert Wyatt's cover of the Monkees' "I'm A Believer" (whew!). Half Cleveland next tipped their collective fedora to Chris' post-Huey successful (for a minute) pop band, the Waitresses. A long-service Rock Hall employee, Meredith Rutledge-Borger, stood in for the late Patty Donahue, singing "No Guilt (It Wasn't the End of the World)" and "I Know What Boys Like." She did 'em up fine, too. For Half Cleveland's final encore, Chris took the oppo to chide the Rock Hall (why is it that hearing this appellation always makes me think of Gang of Four?) for not having yet inducted the quirky Brit pop-rockers XTC, by way of introducing HC's cover of XTC's "Towers of London."

As one with limited opportunity to get out and see bands, this live streaming stuff is the best thing to happen to my eyes since VHS. Hopefully Dolli will continue to beam Half Cleveland into my living room until such time as they have another recorded artifact available.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Jim Suhler & Monkey Beat's "Live at the Kessler"

I'm an expat Noo Yawk Yankee, but I've loved Texas blues-rock ever since I was a snotnose trying to cop Johnny Winter licks back on Lawn Guyland in the early '70s. Back then, all the black people I knew hated blues, and all the white people I knew thought it was Led Zeppelin. Imagine my surprise and delight when I moved to Dallas in '78 and everyone I met -- old or young, black, white, or brown -- loved Jimmy Reed and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Then I moved to Fort Worth, where the New Bluebird Nite Club was as close to Utopia as I'll experience in this life: local folks from the Lake Como neighborhood, soul-patch-and-shades-sporting white blues freaks, hipis, punks, TCU frat/sorority kids and their parents (who might have gone to the Skyline Ballroom to see Jimmy, Bobby, and Howlin' Wolf).

The Fabulous Thunderbirds played stripped-down blues and R&B without the hipi bullshit, and T-Birds guitarist Jimmie Vaughan's little brother Stevie was as aggressive and fiery as a young white amalgam of Albert King and Hendrix when I heard him in a 6th Street dive down in Austin, fall of '79. Then there was the legion of hot axe-slingers who played their way out of the Cellar clubs in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, and into the stadiums: Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, John Nitzinger, Bugs Henderson.

Jim Suhler's a muso in that grand tradition, active since the '80s, fronting his own band Monkey Beat since the early '90s, concurrently touring as Delaware Destroyer George Thorogood's guitar foil since '99. That's around the time he gave me one of my favorite live music experiences of all ti-i-ime, when I took my oldest, guitar-slinging daughter (then in her goth phase) to the Dallas guitar show, where she wanted to see Radish and Kenny Wayne Sheppard. She got her ears opened up when we stuck around to hear a Suhler set that opened with a cover of "Are You Experienced?" on wah-wah dobro and continued with the pacing of a revue. Kirby Kelley played slide, Mike Morgan and Alan Haynes took turns going toe-to-toe with Suhler, their improvisational flights taking off into Butterfield/Allman Brothers territory at times. "Now that's the way you do it," I told her.

I had the same reaction on my first hearing of this new shiny silver disc, recorded a block from where I used to live in Oak Cliff at my pick for the best listening room in the Metromess since the demise of Fort Worth's late, lamented Caravan of Dreams. With able support from a solid rhythm section (Christopher Alexander on bass and Beau Chadwell on drums) and the versatile Shawn Phares on keys and accordion, Suhler leads Monkey Beat through an all-original set that includes blues-drenched rock ("Panther Burn") and down-and-dirty boogie ("Tijuana Bible"), flavored with a soupcon of Louisiana spice ("Deja Blue") and a pinch of self-deprecating humor ("Doing the Best I Can," which includes the repeated refrain, "I can't play like B.B. King / When I try, I break a string").

Suhler's an appealing singer with a roadworthy rocker's voice, and his slash-and-burn slide guitar is a signature strength. On the tough, taut shuffle "Scattergun," he manages to conjure the spirits of both Johnny Winter and Duane Allman, while the closing tour de force "Restless Soul" includes a snippet of Rory Gallagher's trademark "Bullfrog Blues." Some surprises: On "Across the Brazos," Monkey Beat skirts Little Feat territory, while on "Sunday Drunk," Suhler cuts loose with a soaring, swooping modal breakdown, buoyed by Phares' rockin' piano. This is the kind of music that's best heard where you can feel your clothes being moved around by the air from drum heads and speaker cones, but Eric Scortia's mobile recording puts you right in the middle of the action. Dig it!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Jeff Beck's "Loud Hailer"

Realizing that all such statements are inherently wrong, I still think Jeff Beck is the greatest electric guitarist in the world. He's been my favorite ever since I first heard The Yardbirds' Greatest Hits when I was 13 and had my synapses scorched by the insane one-string "raga" solo on "Shapes of Things" and the even more demented choke-strummed climax of "I'm A Man." His Truth album made an even bigger impression (heavier), and he was part (along with Hendrix and Johnny Winter) of the trinity of axe-slingers I worshiped as a terrible tyro trying to figure out how to light up them strings.

I bought three of his LPs when they were brand new: the "orange" Jeff Beck Group album, which initially puzzled me with its Motown homages and melodic instrumentals but in the fullness, wound up being my favorite (and an important signpost); Beck Bogert & Appice, which teamed him with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge and Cactus, reducing him to the level of a Long Island bar band muso; and Blow By Blow, which made my teenage guitar mentor and me think we needed to learn how to play good. We were wrong, of course, but Sir George Martin, creative listener that he was, correctly discerned that Beck's forte was as a melodist, rather than a heavy riff-rocker or chops-mongering fusioneer, and in so doing, gave him the basis for a career.

Once he got past the ignominy of being upstaged by lead singers and having his original heavy blooze shtick stolen by his pal Jimmy Page's more famous band, Jeff reinvented himself as a true virtuoso. Now he's a man, wa-a-ay past 21, and he's had 50 years to continually hone his technique until today, he's like a Zen master: every note is lovingly played with bare fingers and tweaked with impeccably controlled harmonics, hand vibrato, whammy bar, distortion, and feedback. As I've often said, Hendrix changed the world, but Beck lived long enough to fulfill his potential. For guitarists especially, this makes his live DVDs even more essential than his rekkids, so we can re-run them endlessly while trying to figure out exactly How He Does That. But he's got a new album, and it's both good and different than what you might have been expecting.

On his last album, 2010's Emotion and Commotion, Beck applied his mojo to material that included an aria from Italian opera as well as "Over the Rainbow," but fully half of the tracks featured cameos by female singers, most notably Joss Stone, who'd guested on his live-at-Ronnie-Scott's DVD, and Imelda May, whose band backed Beck on his Les Paul tribute project. Beck had previously featured female musos prominently in his band, including ex-Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten and bassists Tal Wilkenfeld and Rhonda Smith. And pragmatically, after he backed Kelly Clarkson on American Idol, it couldn't have escaped his attention that more people like female vocalists than guitar instrumentals.

So on his new one, Loud Hailer, the sound is built around singer Rosie Bones and rhythm guitarist Carmen Vandenberg's songs, with Beck's flashy fretwork serving as the clarion call to pull people's coats to Bones' political lyrics. It's a smart move for a moment when both the US and UK are in political turmoil. While Beck's endlessly inventive guitar growls like a junkyard dog, shrieks like a banshee, and buzzes like a high-tech hornet, Bones sings the blues for this age of rampant inequality, seething anger, and daily violence. The result is a showcase for Beck's chops that people who aren't already fans might actually want to listen to. (A friend told me that the "classic rock" station in Dallas was playing the first single, "Live in the Dark," every hour one day. How weird is that?) It ain't Truth, but thank Ceiling Cat, it's not trying to be.

A few highlights: Bones' anti-1% screed, "Thugs Club," with backing that shifts from boogie blues to bolero; the gentle, Axis: Bold As Love-like "Scared for the Children;" "Right Now," a late-capitalist anthem ("All we need is something new") featuring the rudest noises Beck's made since "You Shook Me" way back on Truth (and that's saying a hell of a lot); the agile funk of "Oil" (a paean to evabody's favorite addiction); and the hopeful valedictory "Shrine" (for my money, Bones' finest moment here). With Loud Hailer, Beck's succeeded in integrating his distinctive sound into a contemporary setting that sounds fresh, not forced or faked. While old fans might crab (and they will), to these feedback-scorched ears, it's an approach preferable to putting it in park or trying to rehash past glories.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Things we like: Braxton/Stockhausen, Mary Halvorson

1) My recent immersion in Braxtonia has led inexorably back to his classical inspiration, Karlheinz Stockhausen. It's not just that there seem to be direct analogs for so many Stockhausen compositions in Brax's oeuvre: Composition No. 95 (For Two Pianos) = Mantra, Composition No. 82 (For Four Orchestras) = Gruppen, the Trillium opera cycle = the Licht opera cycle, etc. Or the fact that both men have highly idiosyncratic ways of thinking about music and the world. As daunting as it can be to read descriptions of their methodologies, their music offers rewards even to listeners who don't "understand" it. I've got a lot of listening to do before I'm ready (if ever) to write about Stockhausen. For now, I'll just say that Momente, with its varied tonal palette (soprano soloist with chorus that FZ enthusiasts will relate to 200 Motels, brass ensemble, and electric organs that seem to predict both Pink Floyd and electric Miles), is the most fully realized of his works I've heard to date.

2) I've been wanting to hear more of the guitarist Mary Halvorson after being impressed by her on a few other people's recs (her former Wesleyan prof Anthony Braxton, the drummers Ches Smith and Tom Rainey) and a track on Elliott Sharpe's first I Never Metaguitar comp. (She's currently on tour in Europe with Marc Ribot's TSOP homage, the Young Philadelphians.)

The best interview with her I've read includes this quote: "I do think a lot about clarity, and I like the idea of being in control of the instrument. So if I place a totally smeared, flabby-sounding line, I want that to be on purpose, not because I couldn’t execute something. It’s not like I have one hundred percent control, but I try to make those decisions purposeful." You can really hear that on her solo album Meltframe, released last year on Firehouse 12 (her label since 2008's Dragon's Head). The material -- which she road tested, opening for Melvins frontman King Buzzo on his solo tour, before recording -- is all composed by other people; I need to hear some of her own stuff, too. But the live-solo-guitar format provides the best opportunity to hear her approach I've encountered yet.

Halvorson's take on Oliver Nelson's "Cascades" combines precise articulation with nasty (ProCo Rat) distorted sound in the same way as classic Fripp or McLaughlin. On Ornette's "Sadness" (a fave of mine from his Town Hall Concert LP), what sounds at first like the guitar being detuned is actually a slide employed "over the top" on the bottom two strings; later in the piece, you can hear it rattling on the frets. Atypically for a "jazz" guitarist, Halvorson isn't shy about using pedals. On ballads like Duke Ellington's "Solitude" or Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino," she bathes her sound in shimmering tremolo, and she uses her Line 6 delay to create off-kilter pitch-shifter effects. Her base tone, though, comes from the combination of her big archtop Guild Artist Award's natural resonance, a warm amp tone, and an aggressive right hand attack. I only wish she'd included her version of Monk's "Ruby My Dear," perhaps my favorite jazz tune of all ti-i-ime, which she's apparently played solo live.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Things we like: Michael Herr, Laurence Gonzales, Shawn James

Since the writer Michael Herr (1940-2016) passed a few days ago, I've re-read his 1977 Vietnam memoir Dispatches -- maybe the best book to come out of that cataclysm, with an episodic narrative style that sucks you in like a fever dream -- and realized how many phrases of his Namspeak ("Tits on a bull," "I've been scaled and now I'm smooth") have made their way into my vocabulary without my realizing it. Only Dylan has been more subliminally influential on my spiel. Because of Herr's involvement in films (Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket), his voice has seeped into our collective unconscious in the same way. His greatness as a writer was in realizing that "war stories" are just stories about people, and in bearing true witness for the ordinary soldiers he met during his time in country.

The novel I'm re-reading now -- Laurence Gonzales' Jambeaux, a fictitious rockaroll saga pubbed a couple of years later, in 1979 -- is unimaginable without that voice (sincerest form of flattery). Its main characters, the musos Page and Link, are Nam vets who speak the same language as Herr's grunts, but find themselves in the rockaroll wars on the Gulf Coast in the mid-'70s. It's redolent of a time when The Music Biz was still a thing, and as such, it's kind of a period piece now, but it actually does a good job of detailing why the Big Buck/Big Record/Big Show model was unsustainable. Gonzales' characters are all archetypes, but he's good on process, whether it's playing a show, flying a plane, making a record, or taking a fix, and it's that gift for description that makes Jambeaux feel authentic.

Shawn James' voice reminds me of the way I imagine Page's might: it stings like the bite of tobacco smoke in your eyes, or straight whiskey on your palate. James hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and fronts a band called the Shapeshifters whom I haven't heard, but on his solo album On the Shoulders of Giants, recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis, he reimagines Delta blues -- the kind Son House, Bukka White, and Charlie Patton played -- as a kind of minimalist doom metal. James sings as though from the bottoms of his feet, roaring his masculinity like an illegitimate son of House (whose ghost is most present here on the closing acapella "Preacher Foretold"), or at least a second cousin of Paul Rodgers, creating an atmosphere replete with the heavy funk of sex, swamp water, and Spanish moss hanging from ancient trees. Somehow, with just voice, resophonic guitar, kick drum and tambourine, he manages to achieve something seldom heard: a genuinely heavy acoustic music. Sure, he's a one-man band, but unlike most of his contemporaries who work in that format, he doesn't play it even partly for laughs. Rather, the sound carries the same sense of dread and menace as the original Delta blues: music to chase down demons by.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Nick Didkovsky's "Pretties For You Live in NYC" DVD

As I wrote here awhile back, this show took place a couple of weeks after I missed the opportunity to see a set by the original Alice Cooper band (with a ringer in for the late Glen Buxton) at what was supposed to be a Dennis Dunaway book signing at Good Records in Dallas. NYC composer-guitarist-software programmer Nick Didkovsky, mastermind behind the $100 Guitar Project, had assembled a band to play Alice Cooper's underappreciated debut album Pretties For You in its entahrty. I'd been listening to that record (which predated my AC fandom by a couple of years) since Big Mike Richardson presented me with a copy a few months before, so my interest was piqued. When I heard the show was available on DVD, I rushed to order a copy, and it arrived in my mailbox today. (You can get one here.)

Didkovsky's work ranges from metal to experimental music to state-of-the-art music software programming, but for the Pretties For You project, he concentrated on learning and playing Glen Buxton's lead guitar parts. Michael Bruce's parts were split between guitarist Nick Oddy and keyboardist-vocalist Adam Minkoff. The rhythm section was the father and son team of drummer Glenn Johnson (a Detroit expat who gigs relentlessly with New Jersey rock and blues bands) and bassist Max Johnson (who's made waves on the NYC jazz scene), while lead vocals were handled by Paul Bertolino, who fronts the Ezrin-era AC tribute band My Stars. The PFY project benefited from the involvement and support of original Cooper band members Dunaway and Neal Smith, who helped decipher lyrics and provided advice on the AC band's equipment.

Both AC alumni were present for the performance, which capped a week-long Didkovsky residency at John Zorn's club The Stone. It's a small room, and the three-camera shoot gives the DVD a jam-room intimacy. While PFY was critically dismissed and generally ignored at the time of its release -- the band's theatrical image giving some the false impression that they couldn't play -- the song structures are complex and demanding, almost progressive, and it's a pleasure to watch Didkovsky and company tear into them with joyful abandon. Bertolino has the look of Love It To Death-era Alice down, and he and Minkoff blend their voices perfectly. Glenn Johnson's powerhouse drumming is a particular delight, but really, everyone is stupendous.

For old AC fans, the biggest treat comes at the end of the set, when Dunaway joins the band onstage, singing "Nobody Likes Me" -- an early AC number that was performed at the 1969 Toronto Rock & Roll Revival and subsequently bootlegged -- and strapping on the bass for "You Drive Me Nervous" from Killer. Bonus materials include soundcheck versions of several of the tunes, and an encore version of another Killer track, "Halo of Flies." PFY Live in NYC is a great example of rock as repertory, bringing a neglected album to life with a stunning, spirited performance that elevates the material with crackling energy. Highly recommended.