Tuesday, June 25, 2013

DVD Review: The Monochrome Set: M-80 [1979]

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

The Monochrome Set: M-80, Live at the Marathon 80 Festival, Minneapolis 1979
Weinerworld Presentation
50 minutes, 1979 / 2013

The Sex Pistols were still an active band in 1978, when London’s The Monochrome Set formed. The Clash was going strong and about to release London Calling when this video was recorded in September of 1979 in Minneapolis, during the two-day Marathon 80: New-No-Now-Wave festival. And yet, much as Brit punk was a shot across the bow to both the social climate of England at the time and the New York scene, aka First Wave Punk (yes, it was, Greil), The Monochrome Set (TMS) was - in its own way - a fuck you to the British Second Wave.

From 1976-79, British punk was largely flash and thrash, that is fashion and deconstruction. TMS seemed to borrow more from the burgeoning US Midwest scenes and the New York No Wave movement that began around 1977. Both these employed stilted rhythms, stoic stage presence, and an adapted-yet-played-down Mod fashion (e.g., straight ties, sunglasses, and earthtone clothes).

While I would be hard pressed to call TMS “No Wave,” I can see shadows of the blaring of the Contortions, the minimalism of industrialization, and the monotone of any of a number of that subgenre’s bands. Yet, within that, it’s easy to hear the kinds tones that would show up shortly on the Fresh Sounds of Middle America cassette series from Bill Rich’s Talk Talk fanzine in the early 1980s…and yes, I still have them. Crisp, occasionally atonal, and yet at other times quite earworm-like (see the song below). I always thought this style was a milder rock’n’roll version of the kind of jazz Miles D. posited on the world. And like Davis, this sound did not last very long, swallowed up the hardcore scene and the polar opposite proto Boy Bands (e.g., the Bay City Rollers).

Despite the static stances of TMS playing live, there is something about them that is enjoyable to watch. While they were influenced by others, the amalgamation (or synergy, if you will) would go on to influence others, arguably such as Tommy Tutone (“867-5309”), the Producers (“What’s He Got”) and the Split Enz (“I Got You”).

This was obviously taped by (a) an amateur person or organization, and (b) probably either onto reel-to-reel video, or a 3/4” videocassette; perhaps a Beta. It’s grainy as hell and a bit tinny, but being familiar with video of that period, it’s actually quite good (compare it, for example, with the infamous The Cramps video of the same era). Of course, in just a few years, the introduction of the 1/2” videocassette would change everything, but I digress…

But, all things considered for its era, the use of multiple cameras and superb editing, we have an important document of a band in its nascent years. Most of the songs they perform would show up on their first album, Strange Boutique (1980), including the wonderfully monikered “Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (part of the title of the classic 1922 vampire flick, Nosferatu. There are many memorable songs here, such as “He’s Frank” and the abovementioned “Strange Boutique.” There are also a couple performed by the bassist, Harrington, for which this is the only time it was filmed live. That’s a good thing because while the songs themselves are decent, his voice is not. Luckily, Bid sings most of them.

This is worth checking out if you’re interested in the period, because it’s so much of an anomaly for the period of British music. Plus there are some great songs in there, as well.

Bid (Ganesh Seshadri): vox / guitar
Lester Square (Thomas. Hardy): guitar
Jeremy Harrington: bass / vocals
JD Haney: drums

Track Listing
The Monochrome Set
Tomorrow Will Be Too Long
Fly Me to Moon
The Etcetera Stroll
Mr. Bizarro
Love Goes Down the Drain
Ici Les Enfants
Lester Leaps In
Eine Symphonie Des Grauens
Martians Go Home
The Lighter Side of Dating
Viva Death Row
He’s Frank
Goodbye Joe
The Strange Boutique


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sena Ehrhardt Band at the Blues on the Mall, in Grand Rapids, MI, June 19, 2013

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos
Photos can be enlarged by clicking on them

Video from the Internet

Coming out of a restaurant, the five of us Media Ecologists, all of whom are musicians (except me), walked across the street to Rosa Parks Circle, where apparently on Wednesday eves during the Summer they throw a free blues concert. This night, it was the hard rockin' blues of  the Sena Ehrhardt Band. She has a nice edge to her voice, a powerful presence, and lays the music down low.

Some time in the middle of the show, the 2013 American Hockey League winners of the Calder Cup took to the stage to show up their winning prize to the ecstatic audience. The Griffins are the AHL affiliate to the Detroit Red Wings.

Here is my photographic journal of the show, followed by a video (not by me) off their second album (also not by me).


Bonus Video:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

DVD Review: Welcome to Rockwell: A Night of Legendary Collaborations

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

Welcome to Rockwell: A Night of Legendary Collaboration
Directed by Phlippe Baudet
ABC Entertainment GmbH
66 minutes, 2012

Apparently big arena shows for charities did not end in the 1980s or early ‘90s. Well, I’m so okay with that. For this recent show, held at the huge O2 stadium in London, some of the top British bands get together for Nordoff-Robbins, which is geared towards music therapy for disabled children. As with most of these events, it went on for hours and this DVD goes on for just over one hour, so a lot was obviously cut out, and the crème de le crème (i.e., the headliners) made the grade.

Opening up the show here is Razorlight. Now, I stopped listening to mainstream radio before I even heard the Ramones for the first time in ’75, so I fully admit that I had never heard them play before. Also, they apparently were much more successful in England than in the States. They are okay, especially their last song, “In the City” (not to be confused with the Jam song). Vocalist Johnny Borrell has a decent voice, though he comes off a bit privileged and arrogant to me, like, “My music is important,” rather than just getting out there and knocking it outta the park (or stadium). However, they still fare pretty well here, and they did come out for a charity event (publicity or true feelings is the question). FYI, Razorlight disbanded this year.

Though I would have thought he’d be the last man standing on the stage as the headliner, Robert Plant comes by and shows Borrell how to do it, by being relaxed and in the moment, rather than showing off. With a mixture of standard instruments mixed with Sub-Saharan ones, the band pulls out the Led Zeppelin songbook with three of their classic songs, “Black Dog” (sans echo), “Whole Lotta Love,” and the cover of the blues classic “Fixin’ to Die.” These are done less metal and shrill than Zep did, and slower, but it still is definitely in Plant-land. I was actually disappointed because since the end of Zep, he’s been focusing more on the Blues, and I was hoping he would do that rather than rehash his discography. Perhaps he was trying to bring in the charity cash, and if that is so, I will somewhat forgive him. I always found Zep kinda…tiresome.

Joss Stone always reminds me of Taylor Swift physically, but Stone definitely wins in both the looks and talent department. Yet, I still do not like to listen to her because of the rehashed (there’s that word again) neo-disco sound she insists upon burying her talent. What a waste. If she was doing rock, or preferably blues a la Joplin or Billie Holiday, I would be a lot more interested. But do we need another Donna Summers or someone of that ilk? Vocally, she’s the real deal, and could easily give the clinical Celine Dion a run for her power (vocal) chord money. Stone is just another singer who has a great voice that I can’t listen to because of either what she sings or the way she performs it (e.g., Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey).

Next up is Tom Jones, giving a rare appearance away from his Las Vegas hunting grounds. Speaking of rehashing, it makes sense that he performs “It’s Not Unusual,” and even makes it look like he isn’t sick of singing it however many times a day he has to in Vegas. His voice is a bit creaky at time, and can’t reach the high notes (from overuse of his voice?), but he’s still fun. I have to admit there’s something about Jones I like as a person, being totally willing to put himself on the line by making fun of himself and his “persona” in various films and television shows. He is a consummate celebrity who is comfortable with himself. That being said, with his extensive catalog of great songs, why in hell would he choose the awful disco – here it comes – rehashing of “Sex Bomb,” easily one of the worst songs he has ever done? What a squander of an opportunity. At least Stone did something new, even if the style is a throwback. Jones’ and Stone’s duet of the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” seems unrehearsed and slapped together.

Cult icon David Grey (who always reminded me of a British Elliott Smith) starts off his classic “Babylon” backed with the female electric string quartet of Escala, before sliding into “Fugitive.” He is a man that works on the strength of his songs, more than anything else, rather than having much of a stage presence (not a complaint), but without a doubt his writing hold it up.

Most of the musicians come back for the finale, which starts off on a bizarre note with Tom Jones bringing out a lyric sheet. He explains they hadn’t picked which song the organizers were going to use, so he needs the sheet: for “Let It Be.” Really? There are definitely more musician on the stage then there are on this DVD, and some missing (e.g., Plant), as they meander through the song with no harmony or being in sync. Jones uses his lack of knowing the song by doing a call and response, but reads directly from the sheet when it’s his turn at the solo. Rather than try to pretend and fake it, the fact that stands by his ignorance is something I respect.

Beverly Knight, who is not anywhere else on the DVD, steals the finale with her powerful R&B. But where was Lulu? She performed at the show, and she is someone I would have enjoyed seeing, as she is another belter who was underrated in North America (have you ever heard her version of “Shout” when she was a mere teen?; absolutely stunning). I definitely would have taken her segment over Jones or Grey, but she isn’t where the dollars are these days, is she?

Track List:
Razorlight: I Fall to Pieces
Razorlight: Golden
Razorlight: In the City
Robert Plant: Black Dog
Robert Plant: Fixin’ to Die
Robert Plant: Whole Lotta Love
Joss Stone: Free Me
Joss Stone: Super Duper
Tom Jones: It’s Not Unusual
Tom Jones: Sex Bomb
Tom Jones and Joss Stone: It’s Your Thing
David Grey and Escala: Babylon
David Grey: Fugitive
All: Let It Be

Bonus video:

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Live: Ana Egge at the Bassment, in Saskatoon, June 7, 2013

Text, photos and video © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images can be enlarged by clicking on them

Social critic Neil; Postman once stated that when you look at an analog clock, you can see your whole life. When one listens to singer-songwriter Ana Egge, the line of time does not stop there, for one can see a longer expanse than one has lived.

Egge is, you see, a throwback to the days of storytellers that have that timeless, ethereal Americana sound that hovers somewhere between the English tradition, an Appalachian céilidh, the Blues, and the revisited style that made up the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? I imagine an updated Lilith Fair-type concert series with reflective artists such as Lucinda Williams (with whom Egge has played), Alison Krauss and Rachel Harrington. That would be sweet.

In fact, a common descriptor of Egge’s voice is sweet, or angelic. Perhaps it is her (relatively) tall stature that helps with her aerie voice and presence, or perchance her often flashing of a smile as she sings, the subtle way she swings her hips as her eyes close in moments of the songs, usually during the instrumental parts.

Ironically, her songs, as glorious and musically soft as they are, can lean towards the dark side of life’s experiences, both of her own and more often of others. Her topics tell of prostitutes who helped as nurses during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, mental illness, murder, and unstable neighborhoods.

But it is not only time that Egge transcends, it is also space. Through her life, she has been a serial mover (and hip shaker…sorry). Though born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, which is near the U.S. border, her family migrated between a farm and a commune in New Mexico and North Dakota. When she reached independence, she headed over to music city, Austin, Texas (apparently the only state she’s lived for a length of time that has a single name!) during the early ‘90s, and now resides with her wife of five years in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York.

This history has surely had two major contributions to her present life. First, it exposed her to an enormous amount of varied local music, from country and blues to other roots sounds. Second, it has given her the opportunity to understand touring as a lifestyle, something taken for granted by some who miss the grand opportunity to expose oneself to other local cultures (I’m sure that is, in part, why the house concert phenomenon is so strong right now).

Ana has played in Saskatoon before; four times in fact, with twice being back-up for others, and twice as headliner, both being at the Bassment, one of the better showcase spaces in the city. It was a dark and stormy night (okay, it wasn’t dark) when I showed up at the club with my pal Dave H. Luckily, we arrived early enough to get a table up front before the place filled up.

Opening the show was the local Little Criminals, the duo of lead fiddle by Amanda Bestvater and the rhythm guitar of Taylor Jade. Their beautiful harmonies, meandering lyrics, and soulful and haunting songs brought a nice way to start the evening. I look forward to seeing them again, and it doesn’t seem long before they’ll be headlining on their own.

As for Ana, her band came out first, consisting of Regina drummer and back-up vocalist Michael Thompson (who has pounded the skins for the likes of Jason Plumb and Serena Ryder) and Ohio-born/Brooklyn-based John Kengla, who alternated on electric guitar and bass (and looks a damn lot like Jimmy Fallon), both of whom are obviously talented.

Ana was in fine voice, and seemed to be enjoying her time on stage. It was pretty apparent the audience was enthusiastic. Mixing in music from her new CD, Bad Blood, she conveyed how she lucked into recording at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, NY (before he passed), thanks to her friend and producer, the noted Steve Earle. She also told lots of stories about how the songs she was singing came to being (looking at old salacious crime stories in newspapers from the late 1800s, for example); her spiels were long enough to be informative, and short enough not to be cumbersome, which is a perfect combination.

While she didn’t switch instruments as often as Kengla, it was nice to see play her homemade guitar for most of the set, and switch to a mandolin (without a strap to hold it up, she self-depreciatingly joked, put played just fine) and a beautiful old resonator guitar for a couple of solo covers that bookended the intermission: “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and a strikingly slow rendition of Leadbelly’s “Good Night Irene.”

There were a couple of other covers, such as a smoldering “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees that she invited the audience to sing along (which we did), and "Pineola" by Lucinda Williams, whom she knew in Austin. In fact, I was so enjoying the show, it was halfway through Ana’s first set that I realize I hadn’t written any notes. That says a lot, right there.

The rest of the tunes were originals from across her entire history, including “Fairest of Them All” from her first release, through ”Silver Heels,” “Hole in Your Halo” and “Walking With Wolves,” a contemplation of her Brooklyn neighbors, both off her latest. The last song was about her dad, “Motorcycles,” as she explained how he taught her how to ride when she was 5 years old (it’s a prairie’s thing, to begin operating vehicles at a young age).

After the show, I had the opportunity to introduce myself to Ana, and explain how we are seemly part of an exchange program: she went to Saskatchewan to Brooklyn, and I went in the other direction. She laughed easily as she towered over me, near the merch table to sign her CDs (I’m sure she sold a few, including to Dave, who also got the Little Criminals 5-song EP).

It was still raining and truly dark when we left for home, but the sun was shining on us internally for a good night spent in easy music company.

Partial Set List:
There Won’t Be Anymore
Quitting Early
Hole in Your Halo
Hands and Knees
Silver Heels
Bad Blood
Swing Low Sweet Chariot (traditional)
Good Night Irene (Leadbelly)
Chestnut Tree
Driving With No Hands
Fairest of Them All
Walking With the Wolves
To Love Somebody (Bee Gees)
Pineola (Lucinda Williams)


Friday, June 7, 2013

DVD Review: The Stranglers: On Stage, On Screen

 Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

The Stranglers: On Stage, On Screen
Directed by Robin Bextor
New Wave Pictures
Weinerworld Productions
108 minutes, 2005-06 / 2012

In the U.K., Celia and the Mutations… I mean The Stranglers were huge. Numerous Top 10 singles and albums line their history. Here in the States, however, nada. They were never able to break the chart barrier, and I believe it was more because of reputation than the music itself.

Though they predated the British punk scene, they were wrongly (in my opinion) lumped in with that lot. Surely they were some amalgamation of pub rock with a twist. But even in Wikipedia, the first sentence states: “The Stranglers are an English punk rock music group.” I still beg to differ.

But while their music was not punk, their attitudes may be considered as such (when I interviewed the Cramps, then-drummer Miriam Linna insisted that the Ramones were not punk rock, but they personally were punks, meant as a compliment). I remember in the ‘70s, hearing about the Stranglers’ rowdiness, sexist lyrics, and the football mentality of their fans (chanting jocks is how they may be described on this side of the pond). Even on this DVD, the fans are on full furl.

But over time, as their singles and records began to disappear from the punk bins in stores here, apparently they started sliding into the pop range, which means I wouldn’t have paid attention to them anyway. Yet, I still have a couple of their earliest LPs and 45s.

That being said, let’s discuss the disk at hand. Originally released as Norfolk Coast Live in “Jolly Ole,” there are two segments to this concert, recorded at Shepherds Bush Empire, London, on December 2, 2005, and presented in the wrong order. The first listed is called “The Electric Set” at nearly 80 minutes, and the second is “The Acoustic Set,” coming in at just under 30 minutes. Thing is, the acoustic set was the opening for the show. Thereby if you want the true concert experience, watch the acoustic first. Here the band plays some softer, balladry tunes that are quite lovely at times, including “Tucker’s Grave” and their infamous “Strange Little Girl” (once covered by Tori Amos, who named her album after the song).

It really kicks into high gear with the loud and yet highly melodic electric set, which covered the then new album, Norfolk Coast (hence the original name of the concert), mixed with some of their fine, older material, such as their covers of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By.” Their oldies but goodies include “Peaches” (of course), “Tank,” and their breakthrough “No More Heroes.” Hugh Cromwell may be well and gone, but he is barely missed as this version of the Stranglers is strong.

When it came to some of the ‘80s stuff, I struggled a bit, as I find it a bit cutesy (to be fair, I felt that way about a lot of music through the now-beloved-by-many era of over-processed sounds; oy>, that ‘80s electronic drum sound that still makes me squirm). I would like to add that adding Paul Roberts to the band was a good idea. He has a powerful stage presence (and I know of a couple of people of both genders who would be impressed by his six-pack).

So, even though there are periods of the Stranglers that are represented here that I would not have even raised an eyebrow about in their time of release, the band brings it around in a way that’s palpable for, yes, the punk in my heart.

The last thing on this DVD, and probably the reason for its rerelease is the inclusion of a short 18-minute film from 2006, titled Norwalk Coast, of course. It’s an intense film starring Jean Jacques Burnel (with most of the rest of the band in cameos, and on the soundtrack). It also has a bit part by Susannah York, who easily would have been in the “Most Beautiful” issue of People, if it existed back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It’s a somewhat depressing tale of ritual murder, suicide and revenge. Jean does a great job.

The Strangers continues to tour, even with their nearly 75 year old drummer (the rest of the band are 20 years or more his junior). Hopefully they keep their power, even with the loss of Roberts on vocals since he quite not long after this disk was recorded. Luckily, they have this for when he was in his Stranglers’ prime.

Jean Jacques Burnel: bass / vox
Jet Black: drums
Dave Greenfield: keyboards
Paul Roberts: vox / percussion
Baz Warne: guitar / vox

Electric Set (79 min):
Norfolk Coast
All Day and All of the Night
Death and Night and Blood
Big Thing Coming
Skin Deep
Always the Sun
Long Black Veil
I’ve Been Wild
Lost Control
Goodbye Toulouse
Summat Outanowt
Walk on By
Burning Up Time\
Toiler on the Sea
Time to Die
Mine All Mine
No More Heroes

Acoustic Set (29 min):
Instead of This
Southern Mountains
Dutch Moon
Tucker’s Grave
Strange Little Girl
Sanfie Kiss
Still Life

Monday, June 3, 2013

DVD Review: SpokAnarchy!

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

By David W. Halsell, Erica K. Schisler, Jon Swanstrom, Heather Swanstrom, Theresa Halsell and Cory Wees
Carnage and Rouge
80 minutes, 2011 / 2012

Like many small city in the late 1970s and ‘80s, a punk rock culture grew. Be it Phoenix or Akron, the scenes started off scattered and became arguably more cohesive in an us vs. them stance than some of the more populated and larger scenes, such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Starting in 1978, this springboard scene could be described in the isolated urbania of Spokane, Washington.

I’m totally in favor of all of both the centers and outposts to have oral histories of local scenes, in either book form or film, and it’s good that Spokane can be included in the ever growing market of such a chronicle.

Like many autobiographies of musicians, most scenes follow a similar path: a band tries to find a venue for their original music in an area that caters to cover bands, and either the place appears organically or the group finds its own space, which becomes the home-away-from-home for its followers. For Spokane, it was Moe’s Body Shop, where bands like the proto-punk/new wave Sweet Madness led to the harder Vampire Lezbos and Social Bondage.

The scene grows with fanzines and flyers, and individual dress codes for that (anti-)social group, with everyone working together against the local government who tries – and eventually succeeds – to shut venues down. And just when things are going good in three to four years, drugs make their way in – usually heroin to replace the pot and booze – and the group of musicians and fans alike fall apart and most scatter, destroying the scene from the inside out.

This documentary clearly shows that Spokane also followed that organic process, and it is dutifully and sometimes painfully laid out for those of us who did not live there during these halcyon days. Spokane was as an important center in the Northwest, equaling the more well-known Seattle, where alternative (not punk, as it would mistakenly be called) would break out a decade later.

There are two areas of this doc that I question, as I feel it is lacking, one picky, and one aesthetic. First, they appreciatively give the names of everyone interviewed from the scene, and there are over 30, according to the dust jacket. It is quite amazing the array people they managed to reach from that scene for this documentary, and kudos for it.

However, because this is not a nationally known scene where everyone knows of, say, a Patti Smith or Joey Shithead, it is onus of the documentarian to give the context of the people being preserved. For example, if under the name caption they could have stated which band the person was in, or even the affiliation such as “fan” or “flyer artist,” that would have helped enormously. It’s a bit egocentric to think that everyone would or should know. Given that, for a few musicians, there will be a clip with the name to connect with the talking head. Heck, it’s been 30 years since some of this has gone on, and seeing an interview now and an image from then doesn’t always make the connect when you add on the years.

The other thing I felt lacking was a demonstrative statement of what made this scene unique. As I stated at the beginning of this review, the trajectory of this scene, even though the bands have gone through their own location filters, it is hard for an outsider to tell exactly what makes Sweet Madness, say, any different than The Fast, in New York. I kept waiting to hear about that distinctiveness.

Now a lot of that is forgiven because of the clips of the bands from back then, which are priceless. The music is great and worthy of recording. I’m just sorry it was only clips (though some are extended), and would love to have the full music videos included as extras. Fortunately, some could be found on YouTube, which I have been enjoying.

I actually remember some of these bands during the days I published FFanzeen (1977-88), and actually have some (not many) in my collection. The music was exciting, and despite their isolation (as remote as one can get in a relatively modern technological society, even pre-Internet), they fit in well with the scenes from around the country (note that touring as a concept for indie bands from smaller cities was not yet totally a given, as it would be when the hardcore scene started to flourish by the mid-late 1980s, as it were.

There are many extras here without being overly long, which is nice, including a few films about some of the people involved in the scene, four nice outtakes, and a slideshow of fanzines and flyers images.

There was a Spokane punk days retrospective in 2009, whereas New York didn’t have one until 2013. Well played, Spokane!

Bonus videos: