(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

CD Review - Charlie Hunter, Baboon Strength

When I saw Charlie Hunter live last month, I bought a copy of his latest CD, Baboon Strength. I've already talked about his skill and technique in my review, so I won't rehash all of that. Suffice it to say, he's an incredible player and he surrounds himself with exceptional players, too. Even though the band played a number of tracks off the new CD in their show, the touring band was a different group than the group that recorded Baboon Strength. This is significant because the touring band had a couple of horn players and no keyboard while the CD was a trio lineup with Eric Deutsch on keys and Tony Mason on drums. I was interested to see how the CD would compare. It turns out that, even though I really enjoyed the show, listening to the CD was a completely different experience. Sure, the album has a heavy focus on keys, which were missing in the live show. But another big difference is that the live arrangements were a lot looser and less melodic than the CD.

Overall, this album is more approachable than some of Charlie's earlier work. Throughout his full catalog, he often layers a jazzy, slightly distorted guitar over a steady funk beat. This album has plenty of that, but the playing doesn't move as far outside. That brings up a bit of a conflict. Jazz aficianados enjoy the challenge of music pushing boundaries while lay audiences hear this as disorganized noise. On this album, the songs are more melodic and almost asking for vocals. On the other hand, there's still enough going on musically to keep the sophisticates engaged. In a lot of ways, this disc sounds similar to his last album, Mistico, which also featured Eric Deutsch. They're similar but Baboon Strength has more of a bluesy sort of thread running through the pieces. on this CD. That and the melodic clarity make this a very listenable album.

The disc opens with Athens, a simple funky groove with a piercing keyboard wail. The bridge soars into wall of chords that could be an outtake from a Blues Traveler session. This two section contrast is a formula that Charlie uses fairly often. The next track, Astronaut Love Triangle, has some of the same structure but the funk is replaced by more of a bouncy trance groove. In this song, Charlie sounds more like a stacatto keyboard. Later on the disc, Welcome to Frankfurt hits a similar techno sound.

You might recognize track 3's Difford Tilbrook as the names of the songwriters from Squeeze. This is deliberate, since the intro is similar to their song Tempted. After a couple of times around, it drifts into a moodier original sound, but I can imagine ironic vocals complementing this. Between this and the ballad A Song for Karen Carpenter, I'd really like to see Charlie Hunter collaborate with a lyricist.

Skipping around a little, my favorite track is Baboon Strength, which sounds like a 60's movie soundtrack: groovy psychedelia grown out of a distorted echo, some doubled keyboard and guitar, and a trippy organ solo. A close second is AbadabA, which is moody and contemplative. It has a similar retro sound as Baboon Strength, disoriented and dreamy spy music. There's even a hint of Joe's Garage era Frank Zappa in there. The live version at the show had more of an Oingo Boingo feel because of the horns but the keyboard version sounded great.

Listening to Charlie Hunter's different projects, the end results are strongly influenced by the group he's playing with. Whether it's heavy jazz fusion with Garage a Trois or more traditional jazz work on his cover of Natty Dread, he's adept at fitting together with the particular players and project to get a unique sound. This project showcases Eric Deutsch's keyboard work but it's still unmistakably Charlie Hunter. If you're not familiar with Charlie, give this disc a listen. If you already follow him, catch up with this one.

Dirty martinis and canapes will complement the retro sound. Relax and tap your feet.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Concert Review - Dub Skin, Easy Star All-Stars

March 15 2009, Aggie Theater (Ft. Collins CO)
I haven't been to a reggae show for a while and here was the perfect remedy. In any case, a chance to catch the Easy Star All-Stars should never be missed. As it crept past 9pm, the crowd was enthusiastic but thin. This was probably because it was Sunday night and spring break has started. Still, this filled out over the course of the opening act. By the time the Easy Star All-Stars hit the stage, the place was hopping with a decent turn out.

Dub Skin
Before the All-Stars came out, Dub Skin came out to play a set. They are based here in Ft. Collins but they've toured around a fair amount, playing with some big names in reggae, like Burning Spear and the Itals. This is a 6 piece group that plays some very competent reggae. The drummer (Yroc) is particularly good. He plays with a fair amount of rhythmic complexity without losing the basic underlying groove. Just by shifting where he's playing (e.g. moving from the snare to rimshots), he can change the feel of the section and signal the band. Sure, a lot of drummers do this, it's part of the job. But he is smoother than many I've heard.

The rest of the band is good, too: solid bass (6 string!) and bouncy keys, etc. The lead singer, Ificial, has a strong stage presence, delivering conscious raising lyrics against a roots reggae groove. Some of their music is fairly reminiscent of Burning Spear or Black Uhuru. They throw in enough samples to update the sound a little, though. They played about 8 songs, with the high point coming in the middle of the set. I'll guess the title is African. "Before the European...even before the Arabian...we were African" The crowd loved this - the steady rolling delivery built up the energy to a high pitch.

This was followed a couple of songs later by a cool trippy dub groove (lots of each, thick guitar that sounds like the Cowboy Junkies): "Revolution is real, love revolution is realer." They wrapped with a ska number that reminded me of Madness or English Beat - a real late 70's/early 80's thing.

I looked on YouTube but couldn't find much. There are only two concert outtakes, one is a decent length but bad sound. The other sounds great but is very short. Ah well.

Easy Star All-Stars
I've briefly mentioned the Easy Star All-Stars before, when I talked about cover songs. They got their start with a carefully engineered version of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. This was a dub and reggae version of the whole album and timed it out to match the original. So you can do the sync with Wizard of Oz if you want to. This was the brainchild of Lem Oppenheimer, executed by Michael Goldwasser and Victor Axelrod, who were two producers for Easy Star records. They've followed up with a cover of Radiohead's OK Computer and an original CD. Their latest is a cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band which is due out soon. It's hard to believe but this is not played for a cheap laugh. It's all in fun but the music is serious and sincere. So ban all thoughts of Dread Zepplin . When you listen to these covers, they are completely natural. You'll find yourself asking, "wasn't there a little bit of a backbeat in the original Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?"

The band is a rotating group of group of musicians, so the actual cast for any gig might change, but they are all tight players and great entertainers. The energy was strong and the they got everybody dancing right from the beginning. They started off with a couple of original reggae songs, including a dance hall groove, Bed of Roses, from their EP, Until That Day. It's a big touring band, with sax, trombone, keys, drums, guitar, bass, and two singers. Except for the horns, the lineup reminded me of my old band, Cool Runnings. Especially because of the interaction between singers Kirsty Rock and Menny More: they had some of the same dynamic that Lisa and Keith had in our band. Menny (seen at left) provides a brash Jamaican DJ sound, whether he's throwing out counterpoint vocal parts, toasting, or singing soulfully. Bass player Ras Iray (you can see a glimpse of him there) has more of an R&B/Stevie Wonder sound when he sings. Kirsty (see below) has a sultry voice and delivery that hints of Sade but she can also kick in a straighter pop sound like Gwen Stefani.

After those first couple of songs, the band dove right into the new material, playing a run of songs from their upcoming Sgt. Pepper cover album. Through the course of the night, they played everything except Getting better, Good Morning Good Morning, and A Day in the Life. As I said, this all sounded so natural. My favorite moments were Shelton Garner Jr.'s trippy sitar work (via guitar synthesizer) on Within You Without You and the horns on She's Leaving Home. The dub jam on When I'm 64 was also a lot of fun.

Of course, they also played a lot of songs from Dub Side of the Moon and RadioDread. Money was energetically up tempo. Great Gig in the Sky was a chance for Kirsty to reprise her part from the album - it was good, but I think her recorded version was a little looser, which is what makes that song work both here and in the original Pink Floyd. I hadn't heard any of the Radiohead material yet (although a review will be forthcoming). From the show, my favorites here included Paranoid Android, where the horns were fundamental to the arrangement along with a smooth guitar synth. Karma Police, in the encore, was also so much fun, with Menny More giving us a taste of Jimmy Cliff.

I was quite impressed with how the band could shift gears between the different groups they covered and still maintain continuity. They did tend to play clumps of songs by the same artist but it was still intermixed quite a bit. So Paranoid Android leading to Within You Without You worked in a way I wouldn't have expected.

The night reminded me of good German Hefeweizen: crisp, bubbly, a little bit of spicy clove, and a tiny tang from the wheat. This was a great show and well worth sleeping in for the next morning.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Musings, Review - Jester Jay

6 March 2009, Catalyst Lounge (Ft. Collins, CO)

I'm not planning to make a habit of reviewing my own shows. I still want to talk a bit about how it went and I also thought it would be interesting to write about my performer's perspective on all of this. If any of this triggers anything for you, please drop a line in the comments. Actually, you should feel welcome to do that under any circumstances.


I was scheduled to play a couple of sets from 7-9 pm. I started a little early and ran late, which is always a good thing because it means more music. I got a tremendous turnout from my friends, both on my regular email list and other people I had mentioned it to. So, there was a big crowd there and everybody seemed to be having a pretty good time. Maybe it's true that I sound a bit better if you're drinking but I think people were just ready to have a relaxing Friday evening out on the town. The positive energy was invigorating. I had so much fun playing.

The show was particularly interesting from a technical perspective. I've had a Boomerang phrase sampler for a while, which lets me do some simple looping. I've played with it a fair amount at home and I've brought it to a few gigs before. This evening's attempt was fairly challenging for me. There's a lot to coordinate at the same time. For several songs, I used it more extensively than before to record my rhythm guitar and play it back while I played lead over the top. I also used it to do some more interesting stuff where I built some song arrangements around loops of rhythm guitar, bass, and other fill guitar parts. I wasn't completely sure how this would go over. I worried that it might seem like a gimmick but the audience really responded well. It encouraged me to branch out more with this in the future. I also decided to play electric guitar for this show rather than the acoustic because I thought it sounded better with the bass.

Bottom line, it was a success: the audience was happy, I was happy, and the bar was happy.

Oh, I suppose I need to mention the beverage pairing. That night, it was Russian River's Pliny the Younger (a strong triple IPA) on tap. Not much while I was playing, though.

Now come the musings

This really makes me think about the elements for a great show. There are two main things that come to mind. The first is the one that a performer has the most control over: providing quality entertainment. It seems obvious but people want to be entertained. Each performer needs to think about what they bring to that. In my case, it's a mix of original songs, interesting cover songs, stories that share my musical history and process, my technical skills, and even the occasional gimmick or two (Boomerang!). In some of my previous bands, it's also included some crazy stage antics. Whatever it is, it's the return that people consciously expect from any show they go to.

The second thing, social connection, is at least as important as entertainment. That's a big reason why people like to go out to bars and coffee shops. They want to connect with their friends, with the performer, and even with the larger group at hand. That was fundamental for why the Michael Franti show I reviewed was so good. My brother's last band anchored their success by creating a welcoming in-group, starting with their friends but building beyond them. One of the ways they encouraged this was through creating shared rituals for the crowd, like calling "Social!" for everyone to toast. My old band, Cool Runnings, also had this nailed. The same crowd came out to see us but also to see each other. The ambiance of the venue can help or hinder this but spotting those opportunities is key. The performer also needs to find ways for people to connect with them. Through their lyrics, their between-song patter, and even their body language, they need to give their audience a reason to care about them and their music. Forming that connection creates a circuit where the crowd's energy feeds into the performer and back out again.

Still more musings

I was really excited to get out to play this gig. My last real public performance was last fall at the Drake Road Farmers' Market. That was fun and I'll be playing there again this season. On the other hand, my R&B/classic rock band hasn't gigged since last May and hasn't rehearsed all that much either. So that hasn't been much of an outlet. I could easily promote myself more and get some coffee house gigs but a couple of years of that have demotivated me. My crowd has never made it to those gigs in any real numbers (but I thank all of those that did) and I didn't connect with new fans either. Even though I'm not playing to make a living, money is another factor. At some level, I think that what you put out there is often valued by what it costs people. The coffee house gigs weren't paying me anything and I didn't feel particularly valued by those venues.

In contrast, this gig was very satisfying. I got lots of validation from people who enjoyed my music and from the bar. I don't have an ego problem (although I do have a healthy ego) but it's still nice to get recognition for my writing and playing. More to the point (echoing the comments above), I got a great social connection with my friends and some new people I met. In a way, it was like hosting a party. And all my work at promotion, building a big repertoire, practicing, and loading equipment paid off. I had fun playing and talking to people. And that's what it's all about.

What do you think?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Concert Review - Michael Franti, Alan Vasquez

7 March 2009, Aggie Theater (Ft. Collins CO)

This was a show that I've been looking forward to for quite a while. I've been a Michael Franti fan since the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy but I've never seen him live. Wisely, I purchased tickets ahead of time because it was sold out. The large crowd brings up a number of trade offs. There wouldn't be much personal space but I knew it would help create the social vibe that you can only get with a bigger scene. Another downside is that it also limited my ability to get good pictures. Still, the music and the moment are more important than the photos.

Alan Vasquez

Sorry for the poor quality photo -- I wasn't nearly as close as I'd have liked to have been. Not just for the photo but also to get a better look at his equipment. As you can see, he has an interesting setup. Alan Vasquez loops acoustic guitar along with electric bass, percussion, vocal sounds, and other bits of electronica. His acoustic sounds as though it's been tuned more into the treble guitar range and he often throws a bit of echo and flange into the signal. His bass is mounted on a stand so he can reach over to add parts. To stage left, he has a table set up with a laptop and various other goodies. This lays the foundation for a frenetic visual show. Alan is a hyperactive performer, constantly bouncing. He even treats his acoustic like another percussion instrument, slapping at it (almost spastically). He tends to zip through a lot of fast rhythmic passages with a little less focus on clean technique and traditional melody, although he has those skills, especially some nice classical chops. The first song was typical of the set - it started with an intense repetitive acoustic riff that eventually mutated into a dance club sound ("oonce, oonce";-). For the most part, the songs were instrumental, using the voice as another instrument. He did sing on the last song, which had a grooving calypso feel. The crowd really enjoyed his set and caught the energy as he built up his songs. All in all, this complemented Michael Franti: it didn't overlap so much stylistically but it did have some of the same bounciness.

Michael Franti, with J Bowman

This was an interesting concert to review because I came with a lot of expectations. I've enjoyed Michael Franti and Spearhead but I have a special place in my heart for Franti's Live at the Baobab (2000). This is a beautifully created album that features stripped down arrangements of Spearhead material with a relaxed "living room" kind of feel. That's what I was imagining when I bought my ticket. That dream broke down the moment I walked into the theater. The place was packed and primed to party. The last two albums (Yell Fire and All Rebel Rockers) provide a stronger world music vibe than some of the R&B feel that the older material had, so, musically, this show was coming from a different place. Honestly, it was hard to let go of that ideal Franti solo show in my head.

Fortunately, the first notes of Hello Bonjour, from Yell Fire, stripped away any disappointment I might have held. The energy bouncing between the performers and the audience was incredible. Michael makes it look effortless to form a tight bond with the crowd. Every time he called for people to put their hands up, jump, clap, or sing along, the whole crowd joined in with a will. He had some able backing with guitarist J Bowman. J was a high energy clown to Michael's warm earnestness. J would run across the stage to interact with the audience, grinning goofily. He'd exhort the audience to clap or sing, then immerse himself into a heavy solo along with an over-the-top guitar face.

The setlist leaned heavily to the last two albums, with songs like East to the West, Sweet Little Lies, and others from Yell Fire and Rude Boys Back in Town, A Little Bit of Riddem, I Got Love For You and others from All Rebel Rockers. This last song was the point of a personal story Franti told about his dad, talking about the ability to change and connect with people. I Got Love For You is about letting his own son move out into the world. It was a deeply personal story that set up the song and emphasized Franti's genuine humanity.

There were some older songs thrown in, like Ganja Babe and Sometimes. All through the set, everybody was singing along: new or old, these were all serious fans. There were also a couple of cover moments, with bits of Don't Look Back (the Temptations), Casey Jones, and Our House (Madness).

More important than the setlist, this concert was a social ritual, featuring the sacraments of joyous music, carefree dancing, and political optimism. Sure, a cynic could dismiss it all as a hippy love fest but that would miss the point of a group of people ignoring the darkness outside (economic, social, etc) and taking heart in a voice asserting that "everyone deserves music." At the end of the show I was exhausted (I had gotten up early to judge at a homebrew competition during the day) but happy.

Pair this up with a crisp Vienna style lager (malty but not overly sweet) along with the contact high I think I picked up and we'll be ready to dance all night.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

CD Review - Eleni Mandell, Artificial Fire

I was listening to Studio 360, which is a cool interview/analysis show on PRI. The February 13th show had Eleni Mandell on, playing music from her latest album and talking about her back story. I found both to be fairly intriguing. She talked about growing up in LA, being a fan of X and the punk scene of the day. It sounds like she's done a number of other "styles" before this album but the stuff I heard really caught my ear. It was enough to get me to order her disk.

Overall, Artificial Fire has a dreamy, retro sound. Richly layered, breathy vocals complement guitars that often sound more keyboard-like, with pedal tones and arpeggios. Others have commented on her voice as being reminiscent of Chrissy Hynde but I hear it as more like Margo Timmons (Cowboy Junkies). That perspective meshes better with the music. The album has a slower, thoughtful vibe that somehow reminds me of the end of summer or maybe early autumn. The heavy use of reverb and sparse arrangements add a sense of detachment and distance (they can also evoke some of the Sugar Cubes old songs). Despite her invocation of X in her interviews, for the most part she's not trying to do that sort of thing and she doesn't really approach her vocals like Exene Cervenka.

There are a couple of exceptions to the general ambiance: Bigger Burn, Little Foot, and Cracked are all more upbeat. Cracked sounds like it should be by X (although with a Patti Smith vocal) and Little Foot has some nice Elvis Costello style lyrical phrasing.

My favorite tracks are the title tune, Artificial Fire, and Needle and Thread. They both have ear-grabbing discordant guitar licks and some gypsy sounding melodic lines that remind me a lot of Eric McFadden's songs. The lyrics on each of these are well done in different ways. In Artificial Fire, a song that conflates treasure hunting with a relationship, she has great lines like:
I'm a killer at heart
And I wanted to feel
So I laid out my trap
With my artificial fire
On Needle and Thread, she uses a neat lyrical conceit of starting the lines with "For" (e.g. "For one...", "Fortuitous...", "Formerly...", etc), which catches your attention but doesn't go on long enough to cloy.

Another great track is Don't Let It Happen, which has the simple Billy Bragg type guitar groove that I love with a Ronettes vocal arrangement. Aside from the sweetly simple R&B vibe, the lyrics are killer. Here's the bridge:
Our future is dangerous
Who knows where we'll be
I've already read the letter
You're gonna write to me
The album is weakest when it takes the symbolism too far. Both God is Love and I Love Planet Earth are both weak because the lyrics can't carry the songs even though the music is good. The symbolism slips into cliche and imagery that's intended to be deep but misses the mark.

By contrast, Two Faces, nails the "obscurely symbolic" target. It takes a sparse, jazzy arrangement with stop-and-go percussion and an angular, aggressive lead and pairs this with some very threatening imagery to build a delicious sense of tension. The only YouTube version I could find doesn't do it justice (but check it out if you're interested).

Artificial Fire is a solid effort and well worth checking out, especially if you like that Cowboy Junkies feel but don't want something purely derivative.

This needs a good sour Belgian lambic beer, like Cantillon Gueze, to lend that piquant touch. Sit outside in the twilight to get the right feel...