Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jack Bruce: The 50th Anniversary Concerts, DVD Edition

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

Jack Bruce: The 50th Anniversary Concerts – DVD Edition (2 DVDs)
MIG / Intact
235 minutes, 1993 / 2014

Jack Bruce is associated with many of the important blues rockers of the 1960 and onward, including John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Manfred Mann, Blues Incorporated and West, Bruce & Laing. However, it will always be Cream for which his name will be linked first.

Quick side story: when I was in sleepaway camp during the 1960s, during one year the only record anyone thought to bring up for the three weeks was Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” When we had dances, we would play it over and over. If we wanted to dance fast and frantic, we played it at 78. When we wanted to slow dance, we played it at 78. I don’t remember them putting the needle to the B-side, though they probably did. To this day, I am conformable hearing it at all those speeds.

On November 2 and 3 of 1993, concerts were held at E-Werk in Cologne, Germany, to celebrate Jack Bruce’s 50th birthday, almost 21 years before his passing on October 25, 2014 at age 71.

As presented here in usual excellent Rockpalast standards, the beginning is at a slow build. It initiates with Bruce playing Improvisation on Minuet No. 1 solo on the cello. A multi-musical talent, I understand now why people don’t usually know him for this instrument. I’m just sayin’ and truthifyin’, not hatin’.

After he jumps on the piano (much better) and starts a selection of tunes that sound pretty jazzy in an early style that Fats Waller would have loved, he is joined by keyboardist Gary Husband. With Bruce playing a full piano and Husband on electronics, they blend a sound that is both titters and full chested. Getting better all the time.

When those numbers are completed and Husband is dismissed, Bruce picks up the bass and brings out British blues saxophone legend Dick Heckstall-Smith (d. 2004), along with his Cream compadre, the one and only curmudgeon drummer Ginger Baker. This, of course, changes the dynamics of the room. Interestingly, the trio does not break out into busting some Blues, but into some beautify jazz riffs, usually led by Heckstall-Smith’s sax (though sometimes he does this trick where he plays the sax and clarinet at the same time). Naturally, everyone gets their solo shots. There is a lot of off-kilter-style jazz improvs that would have made Miles proud, full of a-tonal and arrhythmic phrasing.

At 42 minutes, the band expands and we finally get to hear some rock solid blues, with “First Time I Met the Blues.” Of course, it is heartfelt and respectful. Then, as the band gets even larger – including the amazing keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who I had the pleasure to meet in the 1980s when he accompanied Human Switchboard at Irving Plaza – they start to rock a bit more.

About an hour into the first disc, the selection starts turning proggish, and my interest started to wan… Part of me wanted to put on the Ramones, which is always an antidote to this. It was going fine until then, but I suddently starting thinking about what was for supper, and that’s a bad sign. But I was determined to stick it out.

It was worth it, of course, because being the Blues man, you know that would come back, and it did strongly with “Neighbor, Neighbor” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” This, as with most of the songs, comes with many solos by various musicians, everyone getting their limelight time.

One of the variances into classic rock style with a Celtic lilt is “Ships in the Night,” when he is joined by singer Maggie Reilly (who, elsewhere, was the female vocal on Mike Oldfield’s amazing “Five Miles Out,” but I digress…). With this and the following numbers, she goes into back-up singer, Darlene Love / Uta Hedgwig mode for a few numbers, before vanishing into the night.

“Willpower,” a blasting and grinding number, also shows one of the reasons for the rise of punk rock, just seeming to go on and on (and on). It’s over 5 minutes, and it seems half of it is just the chorus, consisting to the song title, over and over (and over). The follow-up, with Bruce switching back to piano, is “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune,” which goes on for over 9 minutes. Fortunately, it’s a totally up-beat blues-based

raver, and like so many choices on these, there is sections of instrumentals. Rightfully so, he backs off to a slower number, “Theme From an Imaginary Western,”for which he never lets up with the power. Being his 50th birthday, it makes sense to end the first DVD with “Golden Days.”

Before discussing the second disk, I need to stop here for a moment and reflect with an explanation. Jack Bruce is extremely talented, as was all members of Cream, and everyone who participated on this is stellar. I am certainly not trying to put it down in any way. That being said, there was a reason I stopped listening to the radio soon after Sgt. Pepper’s, and especially into the ‘70s, because music became too…sterile. Even the bluesy numbers of, say, Led Zeppelin, sounded bombastic to the point of driving me to the “1-2-3-4” of the Ramones. Jack Bruce and company are the same. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the talent behind these British Blues rockers, but there is still something about long songs, seemingly endless solos and earnest musical masturbation that can make me…distracted to something else.

Now that I’ve cleared the air a bit, I’m ready for disc two, which seems more focused on the Cream era. We shall see.

As with the first, this disc opens on a nice, slower note, with Bruce sitting with an acoustic guitar, singing “As You Said,” accompanied by two cellos. It’s pretty effective, and has a mix between Celtic and modern. The band comes in for the next, similar sounding “Rope Ladder to the Moon.” See, part of the problem with me, particularly, reviewing this, is with the exception of some of the Cream stuff, Bruce’s material never really entered into the realm of my tastes, so I am not familiar with much of it (e.g., “Oh, this is from that group and that album…”).

For example, after he switches back to the bass, they do “Life on Earth.” This song, from 1981, sounds like another of that string of Peter Gabriel “Sledgehammer” / Steve Winwood “Higher Love” ‘80s solo comebacks. I was listening to hardcore and the Garage Revival back then, so this is kinda out of my ken. The next few songs seem from the same period.

I was amused at the juxtaposition of Toto’s Simon Phillips’ extended drum solo. His kit is huge and he rambles on with it. Afterwards, you see Ginger Baker, ciggy-butt dangling from his half-toothless mouth (he has COPD now…keep smokin’ kids!), get into his miniscule-by-comparison kit, and almost nonchalantly show how it’s done. One of my fave moments.

The Cream starts rising, with “Sitting on Top of the World,” a folk song they Blues’d up to fame. And here is where the really long, extended songs begin (this one is over 7 minutes, as are many of the others to come). Baker on drums, Bruce on bass; all that’s missing is, well… Clapton would tour with the two in the next decade, but he was not present for this. Ably taking his place for this section is Humble Pie’s Clem Clempson. Pete Brown, the lyricist who co-wrote some of Cream’s biggest hits (and cousin of Marty Feldman), jumps in and joins the vocals for “Politician.”

It’s the Cream era that I’ve been patiently (sorta) waiting for, and here it is. “White Room” (8+ minutes) bleeds out, and a near full orchestral “Sunshine of Your Love” (7+ minutes) are actually done great. With the extra instrumentation (including two bassists, two drummers, a horn section, an acoustic guitar, piano, Bernie Worrell’s keyboard) and Clempson’s guitar, they show that the songs retain their power even after all these years…make that decades.

This section ends with the sizzling 8+ minute (get my point?) blues grinder, “Blues You Can’t Lose.”

Though everyone seems to be wearing the same clothes, I’m wondering if this next part is from a different night, because he covers a bunch of the material that’s already be done. However, for this part he’s joined by Baker on drums and Thin Lizzy’s Gary Moore (d. 2011) on guitar. Moore is a dynamic player, different in style than Clempson, so he manages to shake up the redone material, making it fresh.

Even “Life on Earth” takes on a more rock mode than ‘80s pop. Thanks, Gary, for that! Also, not only does he breathe an entirely different flavor into the mix, he also pushes Bruce into a different direction, as they both play their asses off, feeding each other’s energy. So much better than the first time around, even the solos.

While this trio doesn’t re-do “Sunshine,” they cover Willie Dixon’s Blues classic “Spoonful,” in a glorious fashion, and finish off, however, with “White Room.”

Again, in usual Rockpalast fashion, the sound is great (though I notice Worrell gets drowned out sometimes), the visuals sharp, and the editing enjoyable (not MTV-ishly quick cuts). I also like the way the camera focuses in on the musicians rather than the audience, who are only in a few shots. Better that way, because it’s the talent I want to see, not a roll call.

There are three different versions of this release. One is, obviously, this one, called the DVD Edition, containing 2 DVDs. There is also the Extended Edition, with both DVDs and a CD Digi-Format (just over 5 hours of material), and the Special Edition boxset of 3 DVDs plus Bonus DVD and CD (almost 8 hours). Up to you to get yer Jack Bruce fix, and how much of it you can handle.

Jack Bruce, you were a talented man, and I thank you for your years of playing; RIP. Meanwhile, I’m turning on “Rock-Rock-Rockaway Beach…”

Improvisation on Minuet No. 1
Can You Follow?
Running Thro’ Our Hands
The Tube
Over the Cliff
First Time I Met the Blues
Smiles & Grins
Bird Alone
Neighbor, Neighbor
Born Under a Bad Sign
Boston Ball Game 1967
Ships in the Night
Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune
Theme From an Imaginary Western
Golden Days
DVD 2:
As You Said
Rope Ladder to the Moon
Life on Earth
Drum Solo by Simon Phillips
Sitting on the Top of the World
White Room
Sunshine of Your Love
Blues You Can’t Loose
Featuring Gary Moore:
Life on Earth
Sitting on the Top of the World
White Room



Friday, January 16, 2015

Music Impresario Kim Fowley Obit (1939-2015), by Scott Kempner

Text by Scott Kempner / FFanzeen, 2015
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos, 2015

Kim Fowley was an enigma. He’s one of the more important and shadowy, behind-the-scenes figures in rock and roll history, from its birth through its various forms. He was part of the original West Coast doo wop groups, the Hollywood Argyles who rose to fame with the off-beat novelty ditty, “Ally Oop,” and followed up with a number of his own releases as singles and LPs that were genre bending and leaning towards psychedelia and glam. Kim was also known as the contentious manager and Svengali of the original The Runaways.

There was much that had Kim’s presence in the biz. For example, the experience of holding up a lighter in concerts was his brainchild. He had his hand in John and Yoko playing in Toronto (he even emceed the event), did the first recordings with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, co-wrote a number of songs with major bands such as KISS, Cat Stevens and Alice Cooper, played on Frank Zappa’s Freak Out!, and… Well, if you want a taste of the man, check out the 2003 documentary, The Mayor of Sunset Strip. Born in California in 1939, the 75 year old Fowley died of bladder cancer on January 15, 2015, in West Hollywood.

Bronx-bred Scott Kempner’s career started with the seminal rock punk (as opposed to punk rock) band, The Dictators, who in 1975 was the first of the bands to spring out of CBGBs to release an album; he was known as Top Ten in those days. He moved on to another well-known band, the Del-Lords, before moving out to California. – RBF

Just heard the news that Kim Fowley has passed away. I didn't meet Kim until the mid-‘80s, at one of the first South By Southwest conferences. I never knew what to make of him from afar, and even when I first got to know him a little, I was a little suspicious. I guess it was kind of a NYC-to-LA trans-continental kind of suspicion. But I did get to know him, and hung out bullshitting with him many memorable times, including one especially memorable week when Stevie Van Zandt had his Underground Garage Festival in NYC in 2004, at which the Dictators performed, and Kim was the MC.

Stevie put both Kim and myself at the same hotel for a week. I would see him for breakfast every day, and we would chat for hours, as he held court, regaling all with his endless tales of rock'n'roll heroes and the sometimes even more interesting also-rans. He was hilarious, original, knowledgeable, madly in love with rock'n'roll, and he knew EVERYBODY!!!

It was a tough time for me, as I had been out of the band [Dictators] for two years, and this was gonna be my first show with them in two years. In fact, if not for Stevie, I don't know if I ever would have played with them again. But, Stevie went to bat for me, and I rejoined the band for another five years, and Kim listened to it all, and always had advice or some bit of Kim wisdom that would lift me and get me through the day. He also never once let me pay for breakfast, and always saved a seat next to him each morning so we could pick up where we left off.

Kim was so gracious, and just a great pal and sounding board. The private Kim was very emotional and sweet, and had so much passion for the music and those that played it. He remembered every detail you had spoken to him about. After that week, we were "officially friends," as he told me. That made me very happy and proud.

He was a prime mover on the West Coast, as I am sure you all know. He seems to have a million friends. Kim's name is on dozens and dozens of hits. A true original, a classic hustler - in the best sense - and one of my favorite people out here on the West Coast. I was always thrilled to run into him. He even knew of the Del-Lords, and our guru/hero, Lou Whitney "and his Trans-Am song". His stories were the very best anybody ever told, or anybody ever heard - if people like Dylan, Morrison, The Stones, The Beatles, The Byrds, Ray Charles (remind me to tell you that one), etc., etc., etc., mean anything to you.

It pains me that the days of running into him at a Springsteen show (at which I saw him at least five or six times), or some other rock event are over. I feel like I will still be looking for him towering above the rest of us, and spotting me before I could spot him and calling me over to regale me with yet another tale that I will be repeating to anyone who'll listen for as long as I live.

I am quite sure I am safe in saying we will never see anyone (even remotely) like Kim Fowley again. R.I.P. Kim, I know there are scores of broken hearts around town right now as the news of your passing spreads. I guarantee you, you will never be forgotten. That's a fact. Goodnight, Kim.

Friday, December 12, 2014

FFanzeen FFiles: Music release reviews

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

At the bottom of each the reviews is a video from the release, if available.
John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley
All Wood and Stones II
The other day I was in a store and they played that horrible disco mash-up of the Beatles. What a waste when they could have put on this much more enjoyable release.  Singer-songwriters/folkers Batdorf and Stanley have this side project where they take some rockers and quite successfully translate / re-imagine songs we all know so well. This is their second excursion into the Jagger and Richards songbook, covering material like “Honky Tonk Women,” “Jumping Jack Flash, “Sympathy For the Devil,” and “Time is On My Side,” to name just a few. Stanley and Batdorf trade off on lead vocals as they pound their acoustic instruments. Stanley tends to play his songs more like the originals with a folk twist. With Batdorf, he totally makes the songs his own, transforming “Get Off My Cloud” into a near singer-songwriter ballad. This is a wonderful excursion. Sure, purists are going to be scratching their heads on what to make of this, but I smiled throughout. Batdorf and Stanley are their own Glimmer Twins as they do the rearranging and producing. The ballads like “Play With Fire” and “Wild Horses” definitely lend themselves to the harmonized playing here. The production is clean and I could easily listen to and enjoy this almost as much as the originals. Gutsy.

Beautiful Sky
Big Radio Records
BlueRace (or, actually, bluerace), have been around for a bit now, and they definitely wear their influences on their guitar straps. There’s quite a bit of the later Beatles, Byrds, and the late ‘60s American guitar sound (more rock with a touch of garage than blues, for example). Normally, classic rock is not something that is my expertise, but I gotta say these guys are fun. The songs are catchy as all get out, and listening to this full length release was an easy pleasure from beginning to end (and not because I’ve known the Media Ecological rhythm guitarist, Thom Gencarelli, longer than the band exists).  A good example is the reverb-infused “Why Is There Goodbye (Temporary Angel)?,” which has a hook that will stick with you. Yeah, the cuts are arguably a bit long at an average of 5 minutes apiece, but if the songs are as strong as these, it’s forgivable.  Vocalist (and bassist) Dean Diaz thankfully sounds more late ‘60s than, say, hair band screechy ‘80s, which is a major plus in my view.  Roger Diller’s lead guitar never overwhelms even as it flashes its smile on cuts like “Left to Turn.” I mean, these guys’ sound would fit right in at the Fillmore, both East and West. There is also a good balance between the vocals and the instruments, none really drowning out the other, each one quite distinguishable, which is always a bonus. Some fave cuts include “Daily Minefield” and “Bridge of Sighs.”

Jeremy Gluck and Robert Coyne
Memory Deluxe: I Knew Buffalo Bill 2
It was many and many a year ago in that kingdom by the sea – aka the UK – that ex-pat Jeremy Gluck was part of the 1980s post-surf/paisley revival with The Barracudas, and infamously put out the first volume of I Knew Buffalo Bill with the likes of late giants Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Nikki Sudden nearly three decades ago. I’ve heard of this release of course, but haven’t heard it. Now, with Robert Coyne, Jeremy musically resurfaces with the sequel.  This collection of fourteen tunes shows a definite progression in the sound of what I’ve heard of Gluck and co., using a slashing guitar and synth beats. Now, synth is something you won’t hear mentioned much in this blog, so the fact that I’m covering it means there is definitely something to which is worth paying attention.  With a husky voice with an edge of growl, Gluck uses the years on his vocal chords to strike a mood effectively. Most of the “pop” sound of “I Want My Woody Back” is replaced by a poetic earnestness that remains accessible. Honestly, my fave cuts were the ones that were more guitar-based than synth, such as “Old Father Death” and “The Extra Mile,” but giving a chance to this set is worthwhile.

Jann Klose
Having reviewed Jann’s releases before, it does not surprise me that this release was going to be excellent, but I was still impressed. He does keep getting better. The opening cut, “Make It Better” grabs you by the collar and never lets you go.  More than just a pretty face singer-songwriter, Jann shows he can hit the notes both figuratively and literally. A blazing electric guitar complements the acoustic, and the messages are as powerful as his voice and production. Most of the songs are heart related, both present love or past, but for me, it was the opening political songs that raised my eyebrows highest. That being said, “Long Goodbye” is a lovely pastiche of a love fading. “Falling Tears” has reflections in classic blues, as “Four Leaf Clover” has a light tone with reggae touches. The exceptional Carrie Newcomer joins Jann for “Beautiful One,” showing how well their styles go together. Better known for slice of life songs, she backs this romantic ditty supported by Leah Potteiger’s luscious violin. The closer is a luxurious a capella cover of singer-songwriter touchstone Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren.”  

Larkin Poe and Thom Hell
The Sound of the Ocean Sound
Edvins Records
I have a lot of Norwegians in my extended family, so this CD intrigued me. Recorded mostly at Ocean Sound Studio in the city of Giske, for those who don’t know, Larkin Poe is two folk-rock sisters from Atlanta, Rebecca Lovell (vox and guitar) and Megan Lovell (vox and resonator guitar / steel top). They joined forces with Norwegian-based singer-songwriter Hell (vox, piano, acoustic guitar), including songwriting, and have come up with this lush, folk rock collective (yes, there are other musicians backing them up). The sisters are actually a powerhouse on their own, both individually and as a team, and joining in with Hell has certainly complemented their sound quite strongly. While some of the lyrics, especially those by the sisters can be a bit opaque in their poetic leanings at times, their message gets across to the listener, which is fortunately worthwhile. Hell’s contributions are a bit more straightforward in their message, that is not to say his lyrics and tunes aren’t well written. It’s a beautiful collection whose topics tend to heavily lean on the topics of different shades of love. Among my faves here are “I Belong to Love,” “PS, I Love You” (which has nothing to do with the Beatles or Robin Sparkles/Daggers), “Tired,” and “Wait For Me,” but to be honest, as there isn’t a bad cut here, my faves may change and vary over time. Lyric booklet included.

Lydia Lunch & Cypress Grove
A Fistful of Desert Blues
RustBlade Label
Without taking away any of the importance that Lydia Lunch had to No Wave, Transgressive Cinema, and Spoken Word since the late 1970s, and she was key in all of those movements, I don’t like her as a person, as I can never tell when she is begin genuine or not. I’ve seen her do both. Just so you know in case you believe it has colored my review.  Joining with British noise blues guitarist Cypress Grove after Grove’s previous collaboration with Gun Club founder Jeffrey Lee Pierce, they have quite successfully released something here that is both familiar and new. Borrowing from Sergio Leone’s scalding guitar on numerous spaghetti Westerns, Grove lays down the foundation of scorched earth guitar riffs, while Lunch does her own vocal riffing, sometimes whispered, other times full throated, but always echoy and “mysterious.” Y’know what, it works. With song titles like “Sandpit,” “Devil Winds, “I’ll Be Damned,” Summer of My Disconnect,” “End of My Rope,” and “TB Sheets,” they managed to consistently keep this listener’s attention. It’s often hard to make out what Lunch is saying thanks to the reverb, but even without the text, the vocals layer on the guitar well. There is also an interesting cover of Pierce’s “St. Mark’s Place.” The songs feel like the waves of heat that rise off the highway in the distance on a blistering day.

Molly Hatchet
Live at Rockpalast 1996
Molly Hatchet never really crossed my musical bow, but the powers that be brought a live performance of Hatchet from the famed Rockpalast show dated June 23, 1996, at the open-air Loreley Stadium in Germany. Then-new vocalist Phil McCormack replaced long-time voxer Danny Joe Brown, who left for health reasons. I have to say, as of this 1996 version – as it’s all I have to go by – is awful. Well, the band itself is stereotypical of the Southern Rock sound and not much exciting, but McCormack is, well, bad. Sure, he has a growl, but there is nothing noteworthy about his style. He isn’t even too determined to worry about being on key. I mean, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie could fuckin’ wail, as with Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas, but Phil suffers from lack of stage presence.  The songs here are okay, but nothing that’s going to sick in my mind longer than writing this review, quite frankly. It’s obvious the band can play, centered on Bobby Ingram’s lead guitar, but overall this was hardly what I would call electrifying.  This show is also available on DVD.

My Own Worst Enemy
“Paul Revere” / “Angel of the Underground”
Pristine Indigo Records
A vinyl single. While I can hear an ex-colleague of mine say, “How quaint,” this is a powerhouse release. I had the pleasure to have seen MOWE on their home turf in Boston in ’08 or so, and they had the audience (including me) moving. “Paul Revere” is a wonderful example of powerpop punk by this trio that has nothing to do with a Disney musical. This is a hysterical tune with an anthemic chorus that will definitely get you pumping that fist in the air. While Steve does a solid job on the vocals with this rocker (he’s also on guitar), his partner Sue picks it up for the more serious ballad on the flip (she’s also  guitar, as there is no bass), “Angel of the Underground” about one of my favorite buskers, Mary Lou Lord (who I interviewed almost two decades ago; her tune “Light Are Changing” is referenced here). It’s a touching song focused on a talent that is missed (by me, too). AJ’s drumming and harmonica on the flip is just the right touch. This slower B-side is a perfect yin to the A-side yang, and this release is not just quaint, it’s a fun mix of silly and somber.

Tess Parks
Blood Hot
359 Music / Cherry Red Records
With one foot on either side of the “pond,” Tess meanders back and forth from Toronto to London, and shows the influence from both in this post-psych release. With a nice voice that is hidden behind echo and the music, the melodies are a bit chaotic sounding, in an off-beat and sometimes jangling way, that make it a cross between the late ‘60s flower power sound, and a bit of noise rock as it clashes along in a sort of meditative labyrinth.  Honestly, I could hardly make out a word, if that’s important for you, but I have found when dealing with music that is flowing and repetitive (not in an insulting way), it’s more the entirety than an aspect.  The fact that her voice is deep and throaty, and not always classically on-key, is meaningless, because the zeitgeist is what is important here, and that is what’s effective. This could be a missing link cross between hippie and punk. You can hear full album HERE.

Michael Schenker Temple of Rock
Live in Europe (2 CDs)
For the greater good or bad, Germans are known for their precision. With his guitar in hand, Michael Schenker has proved over the decades that he knows his way around a metal fretboard. His decades on the stage and in the studio have rightfully made him a legend. Despite his name on the helm, Schenker is a member of the band, standing to the side of the stage with fingers ablazing, while for one of the show recorded here singer Doogie White stands front and center, in another, Michael Voss, making it practically a Scorpions reunion. Schenker is a superb musician, no one can argue with that, and yet I seriously wonder when does it become too clinical? Celine Dion is a surgical singer, and that makes her dry as a bone, all the emotion ripped out of her songs. That is not to say that Schenker’s guitar is emotionless, but it certainly borders on a Metal cliché, and one he helped birth. The same can be said about vocalist Doogie. He hits all the notes, but he can also be seen through rear-view mirrored glasses as a Metal cliché: high pitched and wavering vocals, especially on the last note of each stanza line.  For the Voss songs, they seem to play faster. I would like to add that everyone sounds to be having fun. There is a strong reliance here on some of their varied classics, including “Armed and Ready,” “Another Piece of Meat,” “Shoot Shoot,” “Rock Bottom,” and of course their best known “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” with its ear worm chorus. No matter what the Michael Schenker Group incarnation, they have extremely high energy. There are a couple of ballads, but mostly this is full tilt, and they never waiver. Not  bad for a bunch of guys in their 50s. Also available in DVD.

Sweet Magma
Atrocious Saints
Once when I was hanging out with metalhead lead vox/bassist Nick Massios, there was some background music playing. I said, “This sounds familiar, what is it?” He said, quite surprised, “You write about music and you don’t know Dark Side of the Moon?!” That is typical of the kind of jokingly sharp conversation we have had. Of course, I tease back with an earlier song of theirs, “The 8 Foot Bong” (more about that later).  And despite the Floyd reference, it’s pretty obvious that Black Sabbath and Motörhead are bigger influences, with a solid bottom and Nick’s growly (but not death metal’s annoying level) vocals. For a power trio, they sound much fuller, including live (yes, I have seen them play a while back).  Their newest release starts strong with the nearly hardcore laden “LTBM” (which ironically stands for Let There Be Metal). When the band gets cranked up, such as on “I Go Zen,” the mix of noise and metal screeches together solidly.  There had been moments before this, where there were flashes of guitar solos, but the band lets loose here and everyone gets a few moments to shine. Yeah, this is metal, but they seem to keep the solos to a minimum, which of course gets my interest (hence my lack of caring about Floyd or other prog bands).  Oh, it’s not the last time for them to show off their multiple talents, that’s for certain: for example, “Lifeline,” one of my fave cuts, is consistently in the listener’s face/ears, in metal assault mode. It also takes some chances with fake endings and pounding beats, which works just fine.  Towards the collection’s end is a cover of Sweet Magma’s own “The 8-Foot Bong,” as I mentioned above. Pure goofiness, which made me smile, even as a semi-strait-edger. This isn’t rocket science, and honestly I believe it shouldn’t be, and isn’t pretending to be either, but man it is enjoyable fun. And, yes, I would say the same thing about Motörhead. Lyric booklet included.

Up For Nothing
In Trance
I’m proud to say that I was there at UFN’s very first show, and have had a sit down at Lenny’s Pizza in Bensonhurst with lead singer/guitarist Justin Conigliaro. They are a solid alt punk trio that has changed over the decade they’ve been around in one way: they’ve gotten better. Justin’s songwriting has improved remarkably, and it wasn’t shabby to begin with. He’s doing better at nailing the catches.  They lean a bit to the Green Day pop side, but honestly, I think they’re actually more fun than that other overrated band. Right from the opening cut, “This Moment,” with its chanted chorus, you can feel the power consistently through the 5 song EP. That being said, “The Worst Things to Say” is more classic pop hardcore. Just really good stuff. The opening cut and “The Side of Caution” are my fave cuts. They’ve played the Fest and tour often, so if you get the chance to catch ‘em, do it.

Kathy Zimmer
Static Inhabited
Having heard Kathy on and off over the last few years, I can tell you she’s quite versatile, be it jazz or standards. Here she stretches into original music that that has a jazzy but theatrical folk vibe. She fluctuates between them by vocally exercising up and down the scales. That’s not an easy thing to do, and she flexes like a champion, showing she not only sings sweetly, but can write a decent tune as well.  There are a few toe tappers, such as “Laundry Chute,” as well as ballads, but it’s the brash experimental adenoids stretchers that also keep you tuned. There are some definite theatrical references, the obvious one’s include “Glinda,” “Lost Boys,” and “Farinelli.” The background choral vocal “ooohs” and “aaaah” lean towards this as well.  If that wasn’t enough, there is also just hint of country themes, though I would not call this C&W by any stretch of the imagination. Fave cuts include “Right Around the Corner,” “Take You As You Come,” and the sultry “Eva.”


Monday, December 1, 2014

DVD Review: A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials Collection Volume 2

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet
A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials Collection Volume 2
2 Discs, 200 minutes, 1965, 1967, 1974, 2009 / 2014
PollyO Entertainment
King Fam

Yeah, this blog is mostly rock and roll / punk / folk / et al., but it’s also about culture, sometimes from a media theoretical perspective. You’ve been informed.

If you are too young to remember the expansive singing King Family, let’s just say they make the Partridges and Bradys look like the Dead Boys and the Plasmatics. That’s not said negatively, just impressionistically. The 33-member (and growing) King Family rose to Christian, white bread fame by 1960s appearances on The Lawrence Welk Show. This exposure led to their own weekly program, which was broadcast as an opener to Welk’s broadcast. But it was their holiday specials that were replayed for many years that most people remember.

The sweaters and dresses usually matched, and there were lots of fur coats, when it was a symbol of wealth rather than animal cruelty. Hair (wigs and dyed blonde, with one brunette exception) was Dolly Parton high and everyone was emotional, which was often expressed in music.

Essentially, the King Family revolved around elderly Ma and Pa, who didn’t sing much put gave on-air support, the four middle aged King Sisters, the remarkably square teenage-through-early-twenties Swinging King Cousins (e.g., My Three Sons’ Tina Cole, who was usually out front), the “adorable” youg’ns, the King Kids, and assorted married-tos and in-laws, such as guitar wiz Alvino Rey and The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) himself, Robert Clarke, who was usually the emcee.

The first Holiday special presented on this collection over the two discs is their very first full-length Holiday special, “Thanksgiving with the King Family” (1967). By the time this came on, the audience was already quite familiar with the familia thanks to their weekly on-air outings. This particular special is the only one here not filmed on a soundstage in front of an audience, but rather at the sprawling ranch of the matriarch King, Gramma Pearl Driggs (the patriarch had recently joined Jesus, but more about that later), in Camarillo, CA.

We see the family arrive in a group, and various solo and group sings throughout the house, and on various parts of the farm. Much of this is cutsie (a term I will use often), of course, with the King Sisters in solid lead, again, both as a group and individuals. Most of it works, with songs like “Over the River” (as they arrive), “My Cup Runneth Over,” and “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” As with all these specials, there is a moment when Alvino gets a spotlight a couple of times, and rightfully so. In one he does a banjo solo while the King Cousins romp around him to that hip tune, “Turkey in the Straw”; he does get a more serious outing later on in a mixture of folk and Spanish acoustic.

One of the cutsie moments is when one of the Sisters talks to a group of under-10-year-olds about the meaning of Thanksgiving, which includes “the Pilgrims and Indians becoming friends” and “It’s like a prayer” to “thank our Heavenly Father, right?” Ah, for those innocent days…right?

Remember at the time these first two specials were aired, LBJ was president, we were getting deep into the Vietnam police action, there were race riots, campus riots, and the rise of hippie cultures and drugs. To Middle America, the world was entering a sphere that was totally alien to them. The King Family were a cultural throwback to familiarity and values that the World War II veterans and their clans could understand. For me, it might be the equivalent of going to a Ramones concert after the rise of rap.

Most of the time, this Thanksgiving special touches the right tones, both visually and aurally. However, there is the occasional either flat note. For example, while one of the Sisters is sitting among the kids and some puppies, she and the human pups attempt “If I Could Talk to the Animals.” A good example of kids should be seen and not heard to sing. An uncomfortable moment (possibly because I’m a city boy) is an instructional song about milking a cow to another gaggle of kids.

One of the strangest moments is a version of “There’s a Place For Us” (from West Side Story) dedicated to the recently late grandpa while a very creepy looking stained glass image of him stares at the camera. The Cousins do a “hip” Main Street Singers-ish “Red River Valley” to gramps. Gramma is often seen sitting in a wheel chair, without singing along, kinda seeming dazed.

The least successful number is a solo version by one of the Cousins of “Born Free,” which is of questionable pitch. That aside, this is an excursion into the 1950s mentality with a late ‘60s cover. While they never reach the level of subtle subversiveness of The Andy Williams Show (that’s right, you heard me), their earnestness can be comforting.

The second special on the first disc, “Christmas with the King Family,” is much better known, as it was played every year from its inception in, again, 1967, and the years that followed. In beautiful color and similar clothes and piled hair (remember, this is only a month later than their Thanksgiving Special), we spend the holiday with many cultural touchstones.

You know this is going to be filled with classic carols, like “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls,” but there is a lot more going on. Around this time, King daughter Tina Cole, arguably one of the more adorable of the Swinging King Cousins, was rising in fame, so they gave her a song to do as a solo, “I Have My Love to Keep Me Warm,” which she sings to her toddler child. She doesn’t really have the chops for live (though her taped segments work better), but you can bet there were many a teenager out there of both genders who watched the special just for her, for very different reasons. The same song is brought back again later (you mean they had trouble finding a different winter weather/love song?) in a totally different context as one of the King Sisters tricks her hubby to put up the outside Christmas lights.

One creepy moment looking through McLuhan’s cultural rear view mirror is an “inner thought” meeting of cousins Cam and Laurette as the writers set them up to have crushes on each other. She even hopes for a kiss, and says – twice – “even if he is my cousin.” At the time, this may have been seen as cutsie, but now, looking back, may I say eew.

Alvino gets another chance to shine on a slide guitar as he is accompanied two Cousins on harp (his daughter, who definitely keeps up with him) and bass (he’s in a sailor’s uniform). This is a lovely ethereal piece, followed by a “rockin’” and jazzy song and dance medley to “The Night Before Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Sure, it’s pretty sanitized for Middle America, but I’m sure it was considered risqué (they’re all in bed clothes) and pushing the envelope to its audience at the time; sort of the equivalent to white performers singing rock and roll in its early days.

The most infamous moment of this particular show, and probably the reason it replayed so many times (it’s here, and repeated in the two other specials on the second disk), is when King Sister Alyce sings “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to a picture of her son, Ric, who is in the Army. Mid-song he shows up in a surprise move that brought many a tear to the audience, and to his mom Alyce. Perhaps it’s the punk rock cynic in me, but the first time I watched this, I could have sworn I saw an “I’m going to kill the person who did this on-air” look in her eyes, but maybe that’s more me than her. Anyway, she does manage to push through to finish the song, in that Jerry Lewis finale “Walk On” way. With so many soldiers in ‘Nam and with the war so present in the news as they announced the daily body count, this gave hope to those with kids fighting for… whatever the hell that was (I would also say the say for the Bush wars, by the way). Her other son Lex gets to shine with some extraordinary virtuoso piano playing that would have made Liberace proud.

And what would be a Christmas special on commercial television without some presents to remind us to buy. Yvonne quotes her dad as saying that it’s okay to see it as commercial as long as you keep the meaning clear. There you go, America, you can love Jesus and support the sponsors! Yay!

There are lots of songs from films, such as “My Favorite Things,” but most of the tunes are carol classics, including the kids doing a Christmas Pageant to my least favorite season song, “The Little Drummer Boy” (no Bing and Bowie tension here).

As a finale, they do something that is apparently quite common, and a King Family tradition, that I didn’t know about (for obvious reasons) until just a few years ago, by combining “The First Noel” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas” (sung by the kinder) in “Row Your Boat” off-set fashion.

It’s definitely a sumptuous feast for those who thirst for the ring of the jingle bell, the smell of the wreath and the ho-ho-ho of the ho-liday.

Rounding up the first disk is an extra, one of their Black and White network shows from December 11, 1965 that focuses on the Christmas Season, with the expected (not meant negatively) songs, dance and routines with all the King Family groups.

The second disk starts off with yet another Special, “Home for Christmas with the King Family,” shown in 1974. Perhaps it was time to stop showing the last version as Nam was over, Nixon was temporarily vilified, and the times they were a-changin’. It was five tumultuous years which went from hippies to, well, it was the year the Ramones played their first gig.

As we meet the updated King Family, many of the Swinging Cousins are now married, and the kids are now teens themselves, with a new generation of cutsie kids on whom to focus.

The clothing and hairstyles have moved up with time, and the most common style has moved from the WWII upsweep to the down flip (Mary Tyler Moore wore the same style around this time). Heck, one of the now more-mature Cousins is even showing a hint of cleavage. Heavens to Morgateroyd!

The set is designed to look like a living room and kitchen, with a real fireplace, to represent the family gathering for Christmas. First up is a number from the ’67 classic, “Christmas Bells Are Ringing,” as if to say, “We’re still the fun loving family you remember so well!” Actually, there are a number of repeated songs, including “White Christmas” (including a really nice photo montage of the sisters from their earliest days through their career).

Continuing with the spirit of the season (as opposed to the holiday), the new generation of singing kids gather around Santa (Tina Cole) and sing what each other wants. After, a King sister sings “Toyland,” from one of my favorite Christmas films, “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (1934, aka “Babes in Toyland”).

One aspect of the King Family shows and specials is that they really work well in introducing the audience to certain members of the family, including the wee ones. It’s interesting to see here, after a jump of about 5 years since the last special, how some of the younger ones have grown. This includes the older ones, as well, as we first see Robert Clarke looking like a young Dick Clark, to now a middle-aged, mustachio-laden man with some definite filling out to his face. Of course, there is the replay of the surprise and then a catch-up of Alyce and Ric as they sing (with other brothers) a Holiday medley.

Alvino gets to show his expertize again, this time in a back and forth with his daughter on harp, in a mock and humorous showdown of talent on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” They also bring back the memory of the creepy meeting of the cousins who are grown up now (late teens?); fortunately they reminisce without bringing back the kissing question. However, this leads to one of the moments I really enjoyed in this – if not all – of the specials, is a rousing version of the folk song “A-Soalin’” by the King Cousins, which includes some creative camerawork for the time. It’s a song for the season, but rarely gets played because it deals with begging, rather than consuming. Reminds me a bit of Steeleye Span’s version of the olde tune, “Our King.”

As with many of the specials, there are moments of reflection of the past of the King Family history, including the Sisters’ beginnings during or just after Dubya-Dubya Deuce.

While part of me was hoping somewhere they would sneak in a little of “The Dreidel Song” (especially since this special was written by Leonard B. Kaufmann), there are plenty of plush carols, summed up with the family around the tree doing the back and forth of “The First Noel” and “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

The second full show on this DVD is the “Christmas with the King Family Reunion Special,” from 2009. Mostly, it’s clips from the earlier three shows (including, yes, Rick surprising Alyce), and sometimes complete numbers, but it gives the viewer a chance to see how everyone grew up (i.e., aged) over the decades. Only two of the sisters are left at this point (the last one passed away 2013), but it’s nice to catch up. This probably isn’t one that the viewer will probably watch over and over, like the other three specials, but it’s a nice touch for the box set. Still, it’s interesting to think that many of the cousins in this reunion were probably older than their moms where in the earlier shows.

The extra for this disk is another Christmas themed black and white weekly show from December 25, 1965.

I didn’t grow up with Christmas, carols, or even Santa, and get tired of the Season pretty quickly (not to be confused with the holiday itself, as I said), but this was a nice escape into a world that doesn’t exist anymore except in memory for many.