Thursday, November 20, 2014

Women of Power CD Reviews: Laura Cheadle and Kimm Rogers

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

Where the strong women singers start their albums with the same few words...

 Kimm Rogers
Where the Pavement Grows

I’m not sure how I first became aware of Kimm Rogers, but I know it was when her first Island Records release, Soundtrack of My Life, was out in 1990. I fell in love it with it, and it’s one of the few song collections I own in more than two formats (LP, cassette, CD). First I gave a copy of it to my then girlfriend (now spouse), then passed it on to others as well; we all became fans. The video that came out of it was “Right By You.” Honestly, to me, it could have been a dartboard choice because every cut on it was worthy. They self-examine her place in life, both in a small focus and writ large.

One more full release on Island in 1992, Two Sides, also had a powerful video attached, ”Will Work For Food,” a political piece about the impoverished lives seen strewn around major cities.

And what do I enjoy and appreciate about Kimm? Many reasons, but essentially it’s that she has her own, unique voice, both figuratively and literally. Her vocals are distinctive, and is easily identifiable as hers, such as with the likes of Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams or Emmylou Harris. What’s more, she has a slightly different way of enunciation, with the push of certain syllables, and her songs bend in ways that are her own.   

Twenty-two years later, she has once again put her heart on the line with her latest, self-released Where the Pavement Grows.  Fortunately, as usual, all the songs here are her originals. There is a definite growth in song writing here, yet without losing anything that is what I have come to like about the singer-songwriter. A good example is “Twenty-Three,” which is sort of a mirror refection look back to the song “2-0-19,” from her first album. In the earlier, she wonders what life will look like in the future compared to the time, and in the more recent, she thinks back from today compared to when she was younger. This is just one of a number of up-beat numbers that will both have you thinking and tapping your foot. Even her mushy love ballads, such as “Rain,” and “Gravity” (the latter of which would make a great film theme song) keep your heart warm.  

Jazz and Rock musician Julian Coryell does magnificently in keeping Kimm’s voice in the front without losing any of the sounds backing her, many of which are played by himself. It’s crisp and the vocals are clear. Still, the big sounding “Eventually,” full of memorable lines like “I’m not killing time it’s killing me / I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be / Eventually,” never loses itself into excesses.

This is a very measured, seasoned release, taken from a different perspective from her earlier life, though obviously through the same eyes / style. There is growth, maturity in both lyrics and fluidity, even when looking at the harder aspects of existence, such as the title cut or the doubts of “Valentine’s Day.”

It may have taken over two decades for this to reach its present form, but it was worth the wait.  Check out the video below as a sample and then head on to her Website. Meanwhile, I’ll hope she’ll tour so I can finally get to see her perform live.

Laura Cheadle
Where the Blues Hangs Out
Bloozy Toonz Records

Another artist I have not yet had the opportunity to see live but am bidding my time is the luxuriously sounding Laura Cheadle. Don’t let the pictures of this young, white thang fool you; she can both blast the blues and R&B (and I mean the real stuff).

How do you know she’s solid? Well, for starts, she writes most of her own material, along with the Cheadle family who usually support her both in the formation and performing aspects. And yet you can imagine the likes of Ella or Bessie feeling at home with these tunes.

Then there is that voice. Not the gravel of, say, Janis, but more of a sexiness, late-night lovin’ vibe that relies strongly on her powerful vox, various keyboards and hot electric Northern Blues guitar style (Chicago/Detroit). Oh, and there is the occasional use of 20 Feet From Fame type backing boys or gals. Despite being a “home-grown” South Jersey recording, the production is slick without being slick, if ya know what I mean.

Many of Laura’s songs deal with love and loving, and her voice wanders the R&B scales without being a show-off about it (e.g., Mariah and Xtina, who I find boring for that reason despite their talent, unlike Laura). Whether she’s purring like on “The Best That It Could Feel,” shimmering as with “This Life Is Made to Dance,” or shattering on “Blue Sky” and the title cut opener, she will keep your attention.

Then there are numbers where she does it all, like the cover of Lil’ Son Jackson’s “Rock Me Baby” that would have fit on the stage of the Fillmore, both East and West (see video below). Her choice of covers is smart, such as a live version of T-Bone Walker’s “Call It Stormy Monday,” or the Gershwin/Howard standard, “Summertime.” The latter is done is a deep tone making it just sizzle, as it was meant to be. Sometimes in previous recordings she leans towards the sexual, but here she’s waist deep in the sensual.

Cheadle constantly pleases, with a voice that’s a mixture of honey and velvet, with a touch of vinegar. It’s also a bit timeless. I could imagine her singing in just about any era in the last 80 years or so. On the stage of the Cotton Club, the Apollo, the Blue Note, any jazz festival, or even Woodstock, she could find a place to be comfortable. That’s quite the range. For someone who is as prolific as she has been over the past few years, the quality of her work seems to be still on the incline. And I’m grateful.

Kimm Rogers:

Laura Cheadle:


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

DVD Review: Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2014
Images from the Internet

Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders
Written and directed by Danny Garcia
Jungle Records
Chip Baker Films
98 minutes, 2014

A week before his first album was released, I became embroiled in an argument with Tom Petty over the use of the name “The Heartbreakers.” He insisted that he checked the New York band out and they weren’t going anywhere, and no one would care. Petty was both right and wrong. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers out sold Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers probably a million to one. But I have never seen a Tom Petty bootleg; there are hundreds of Johnny Thunders. I have never heard a guitarist say, “Man, I heard Petty play, and just wanted to form a band.” You would be hard pressed to find a guitarist these days who would not call Thunders’ an influence. How does one judge success?

For me, I saw Petty play twice (CBGBs and the Bottom Line). The Heartbreakers out of New York, in various forms, is probably the band I have seen more than anyone else (even more than the Ramones!). Most of the time it was at Max’s, and usually with Nancy Foster / Suzie Q / Nancy New Age / Nancy Neon (among her many handles), my musical sister if ever I had one, across the table.

Most of the shows Thunders was on fire (as was the rest of the band, but this film is about Johnny, so I’ll stick with him as the focus for now), flowing from song to song without stopping between, roaming the stage and spitting glances. Honestly, I’ve also seen some terrible shows; one that comes to mind is an Irving Plaza gig where he was so out of it that he couldn’t find the direction of the audience and had to be shown by underrated bandmate Walter Lure (the last surviving Heartbreakers member) which direction to face. Johnny couldn’t work his hands until a band member gave him something up his nose while on stage, and then he could either strum or finger the chords on his guitar, but not both. I saw more than one person in the audience literally cry that night.

The memorial for him in 1992 in New York was a blast. It was a gala affair with the likes of Lenny Kaye, Cheetah Chrome, Spacely, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain, and many other New York crème de la crème of the scene on stage and in attendance. I still have the tee-shirt from that night.

Today, the born in 1986 son of a good friend is a huge Thunders fan, and for him Johnny was the model of how to play. It doesn’t matter that there are those that are reviled by his questionable usage behavior or some of his off-stage antics. He was an on-stage role model, and that is why, in my opinion, that he has such a multitude of fans, both from the day and even now years after his controversial New Orleans demise in 1991.

At the halfway point of the film, we’ve met many of the main characters in both flashback and talking heads mode. There’s Actress, the New York Dolls and both versions of the Heartbreakers (Richard Hell and after, when they were at their “height”). Lots of notables who were around the scene at the time, and I kept thinking, damn, I’m glad they made this when they did. So many had already left this earth, including Billy Mercia (1971), Jerry Nolan (1992; last time I saw him play was at the Thunders memorial that same year), Arthur “Killer” Kane (2004; there is a great documentary about him as well, New York Doll), and Malcolm McLaren (2010; who is heard in voice interviews); and just as notable, too many died after being filmed for it, such as the great Billy Rath (2014), Marty Thau (2014) and ever lovable photographer and Heartbreakers’ manager Leee Black Childers (2014).

It is also noteworthy to see who doesn’t appear, such as David Johansen, Max Blatt, his kids, Richard Hell, and Patti Palladin.

But now let’s focus more on what the film has rather than lacks: the likes of musicians Lenny Kaye, Walter Lure (amusingly looking his most corporate and sounding his least deprecating; not meant as any kind of insult), Andy Shernoff (nee Adny) of the Dictators (other members of this also great group despised Thunders), Cynthia Ross (of the underrated B-Girls, and girlfriend of Stiv Bators), Bob Gruen (photographer who has some of the most biting and insightful comments about Thunders’ drug use) and other musicians who have played and worked with him across the globe.

Essentially this is a standard biography, chronologically following a musicians life, but Thunders loomed so large in the New York music scene, that he oozes out of every frame, making this his own in the same way he shared the stage with incredible musicians, such as Lure and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and each one of those groups are known as “Johnny Thunders and…” or “Johnny Thunders in…” He led an amazingly charmed albeit drug-addled career. The stories weaved by these (and other) musicians, friends and relatives are fascinating, and that’s what is the center focus of the tale.

While I enjoyed the first half of the film, it is at the center that it really starts to pick up for me. I mean, there are so many books and films about the Dolls that bleed into the Heartbreakers that I sat there enjoying the story, but it felt more like, “And…?” But after the break-up of the Heartbreakers, well, for me that’s where it becomes new and exciting; more films and interviews that I’ve never seen, including during his residency in Sweden, France and Germany.

At first I was annoyed that there was little mention about what a dick Thunders could be (Howie Pyro, who is interviewed here, has a great story in the deleted scenes about how he met Johnny), especially about money, but that is covered in this second part. Being the non-drug user I am, I was nervous about hanging around him and never did, but I loved being in the audience when he played, even the odd gigs like Girls Nite Out at the Ritz, or the Save PIX benefit at Irving Plaza.

The film touches on the mysteries surrounding his death, but thankfully doesn’t belabor it, because Thunders’ importance is music first, and then possibly fashion, and solid personality. There are no definitive answers about the circumstances around his demise, so the focus on his life feels more important. What made him tick, you might say, not what made him stop. I would rather hear about his short film career than what happened in New Orleans. That, it seems, should be a different film for another time.

In all, this is a loving but honest film about a troubled musician’s life, seen through the eyes of his friends, videos, performances, and conversations with the man, himself. If one were to look at just three albums from each phase of his life, the Dolls’ first release, The Heartbreakers’ L.A.M.F., and the solo So Alone, one could stop and be satisfied, but there is so much more.

I remember standing in the kitchen of Boston musician and publicist Joe Viglione in the first half of the 1980s, and talking to music producing legend Jimmy Miller (a Brooklyn boy, FYI) about working with Thunders for the French label, Red Rose Records. I could have asked him about the Stones, but Thunders was my interest. That says a lot.

The extras are pretty good from end to end. They include a Behind the Scenes, which is mostly a radio interview with the director on a New Orleans radio station mixed with some deleted scenes, which is about 9 minutes long. This shouldn’t be confused with the actual 20-minute Deleted Scenes, all of which is interviews that didn’t make the final cut, but which are all interesting and worth a view. There are two live songs including the Heartbreakers doing the Lure classic “All By Myself,” and a bluesy music video by ex-Oddballs (a band he was in with Thunders) Stevie Klasson called, well, “Looking for Johnny.” Along with the trailer, there is a short film about a guitar-maker who designs Thunders-modeled electrics.

This is an excellent documentary, and does really well in placing the importance of Johnny Thunders on an international stage, in a wider expanse than one would normally envision for a kid from Queens. Take that, Tom Petty.