Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Ian Hunter: When I'm President - Soliloquy For The Dudes

When I'm President may be Ian Hunter's best solo album since his first. It's a bold return to brash rock, but you never lose the sense that the onetime frontman of the greatest show on earth quit writing for an audience decades ago. Still, there's not a writer who speaks for us all more eloquently. He might write in a dark room sans shades, but when he sings we listen.

Ian Hunter's voice is one of the most intensely loved instruments in rock history. Maybe not loved by countless millions, but deeply loved by those that count - the real lovers of rock. The voice is still in fantastic shape, and he's stretching his vocal cords out more on this record than he has in ages. The Rant Band is one fire, providing the strongest backing Hunter's had in decades. Guitarist Mark Bosch joins the celebrated corps of six stringers (The Micks - Ralphs and Ronson, Luther Grosvenor/Ariel Bender, and Andy York) who have always kept Hunter more in the realm of rock star than singer/songwriter. His sharp, melodic soloing is riveting, and there's more great guitar work here than we've seen on a Hunter disc in ages.

At 73, Hunter would be forgiven for not going full stop, but if anything, he sounds decades younger than his age. He's still pulling out new tricks, and the band sounds like it's trying to keep up with their leader more than the other way around.

Comfortable (Flyin' Scottsman) kicks thing off with a bit of barroom rock that harkens back to the days when Hunter still called the UK home. His voice is remarkable, and the rockin' guitars, horns, and piano remind us that Mott The Hoople wasn't a good band, they were a great band. This takes you right back to 1974.
"The songs seem to be more upbeat this time round. The last two albums were pretty political, just because I thought the Bush years were horrible, and thankfully that's passed. But I don't go looking for songs; I have to wait for them to come to me. I had a spurt there in the summer of 2011, and that grew into this album. I'd get up every day with something ringing in my head, so I'd try to catch it and get it down. Songwriting's always been a mystery to me in that way. Now and again you're nearer the sun, and you have to be ready to capture it." Ian Hunter.

Fatally Flawed carries on Hunter's penchant for writing lyrics that offer much more than meets the eye. A slow simmering rhythm & blues shuffle goes hard rock heavy - Bosch turns it up for a psycho-distortion lead that resolves into some soulful bends, as Hunter intones:
"Fatal flaws like to breed,
inside addictive personalities.
By her bed she opens up a drawer,
and there's bottle full of them,
Fatal Flaws."
A loping single string guitar melody reminiscent of Hunter and Ronson's 1981 classic, Central Park n' West climbs over a nicely plucked intro by co-guitarist James Mastro rings in the title track - When I'm President continues Hunter's autobiography via song, and it's amongst his finest chapters. The Rant Band is all over this record with the ganged background vocals that made their leader's earlier groups so charming. He's always the alien yet when he invokes the names of America's past presidents, you're ready to change the constitution and cast your votes. Hunter for President? Hell, yes.

Hunter and The Rant Band cut this record in record time - they didn't mess around, they grouped up and laid it down, and it sounds like it. This thing bristles with good energy from beginning to end, and you can tell that this bunch aren't strangers. They've had a few good years to get to know Hunter, and they get better, tighter, and more exciting with each release. Let's hope for more, and soon.

Ian Hunter has become increasingly more political as the years have gone by, largely given to living in a land in which is going to hell in a hand basket, but not still young enough to learn from its failures, unlike his home country England. Over the last two albums, his politics seem to be becoming more personal than governmental, but make no mistake, the man is still laying down truths the likes we've not heard since Dylan meant something.

If swaggering rock thrills ya, What For is what ya came for. This is Hunter's best rocker in twenty years. His pen is razor sharp, and his voice is incredible. If you told me I could sing like this at 73, I'd kiss your ass, and thank you for the privilege. The band is raging and the joint is rockin'.

Black Tears is the most melodic Hunter since the '80s. It's a bluesy rock tune with enough 'Broadway' to win the hearts of Hooples everywhere. This tune sounds like nothing in the Hunter canon, it's way too bluesy and way too heavy (in a way we've not seen since Ariel Bender's genius on 1974's The Hoople album, but it obviously came from the familiar pen. This is a new trick and it opens up another avenue in which the man can weave his magic. Bosch is hall of fame worthy here, and he just heaps on tasty line after tasty line. Brilliant, and new. Who could ask for more?

I'm going to stop there with the song reviews - now it's time for you to put on your cap and find out for yourself that great albums are still being made. I will tell you that Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse) is a wonderfully conceived tribute that hits the mark, and that I Don't Know What You Want From Me is another almost insanely good Hunter tune that feaures his son Jesse on an amazing lead vocal.

OK, I have to tell you about Life. It closes the album - a melodic ballad that sees Hunter waxing in a nostalgic way unheard since Saturday Gigs, and Michael Picasso. No one has ever written more thoughtful rock than Ian Hunter, and this is another great one. He speaks so well of the human condition - he's always given us more smiles than he allows himself, and we are ever the richer for his gifts.
"I hope you had a good time,
I hope your time was as good as mine.
My you're such a beautiful sight.
I can't believe after all these years,
Your still here and I'm still here,
Laugh, because it's only Life."
I'm sure that there are better things in life than great albums by living legends, but right now, I can't imagine what they'd be.

Thank you, Ian Hunter - I remember once giving a roadie a well worn copy of your book, Diary of a Rock and Roll Star outside the FM Station in North Hollywood, in hopes of getting it signed. You popped your head out, saying, "Oh, so you're the one who bought it." You then invited me in and I've stayed ever since. Thanks for the great trip. If it weren't for your words, I'd not be writing today.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Re-Machined: In The Studio with Vai, Hughes, Smith, and Doley - A Producer's Perspective with Fabrizio Grossi

My day was made considerably brighter yesterday when I received a guided tour from producer Fabrizio Grossi of the Deep Purple classic track Highway Star as performed by Glenn Hughes, Steve Vai, Chad Smith, and Lauchlan Doley for the soon to be released Re-Machined: A Tribute To Deep Purple album.

This track has completely floored me. It is the most exciting slice of rock and roll I have heard this year. It did what I did not think could be done - it excited me in the same way that the original track had when I first heard it at age fifteen. I rarely get goosebumps from rock these days, but this raised them on several occasions.

I first heard about the track in a message I received from Grossi:

"Hey Tony, I just finished up the dream of a life time. I was able to unite Glenn Hughes with Steve Vai and Chad Smith on a cover of Highway Star for the 40th anniversary of Machine Head. Producing and mixing these guys has been incredible, and the result is MIND FUCKING BLOWING! Wait til hear the CD, you won't freaking believe it. Glenn is god-like and Vai sounds like Brian May is doing crystal-meth while emulating Hendrix!"

He wasn't exaggerating a bit, either.

The song begins with Vai taking the reins and spinning out a brief intro that signals his willingness to add to and not just ape the original. This take is true to the original in all the spots that you need and wish to hear, but there's plenty of what makes Vai great on tap as well. I've heard some fantastic renditions of Highway Star from other great guitarists, but I feel good in stating that only one player has ever owned it like this, and he wrote the song. I think Ritchie would nod approvingly, and he's not really one known for his nodding.

I asked Fabrizio about tracking the guitars:

"We recorded for, I would say about a couple days in total. All the guitars were done at the Melody Hut, Steve’s new studio, which is nothing less than a guitar sanctuary! I love his work on this because it was respectful enough with Ritchie’s landmarks parts, but able to turn the whole thing around and make it sound just like Vai. For long time I've wanted to hear him on a power vocal track, and this was just the confirmation of why I’ve always been drawn to his music. It’s not just the guitar playing, but it’s the overall orchestration concept of guitar overdubbing behind this man, that makes him who he is."

Vai elaborates on the solo sections very little, but when he does it is astounding. He adds some harmony licks that have me grinning from ear to ear, and his replication of Blackmore's dizzying hammer-on display is truly mind blowing. Even his rhythm playing under the solo is pure excitement. I've yet to hear the Chickenfoot rendition, but I'm certain that while the guitar heads debate the relative merits of Steve versus Joe, the true fans will be glorifying in having both to enjoy. Highway Star is a song that I've been somewhat tired of hearing after years of classic rock radio, but Steve and his consorts have given it a great new reading.

Glenn Hughes is still on fire. He's been sizzling for the last few years, having returned to his hard rock roots after years of forging new fields of heavy funk. On many of these outing he's been joined by his brother-in-arms Chad Smith, who is ferocious here. Fabrizio Grossi responded with a laugh when I asked about the rhythm team of Smith and Hughes, and the tune's incredible drive:

"That was done with Glenn and Chad interacting on the rhythm wall, they were playing in front of each other and it was pretty 'sick' watching these two going at it. Then everything else was overdubbed, but still approached with a very live feel. The song wasn’t played to a click or anything, and you can hear it, but it “pulls” like a mother, and that’s it’s beauty."

Hughes's vocal is something to behold - I got my first set of goosebumps when the 61 year old singer totally nails the classic Ian Gillan screams that ring in the first verse. Hughes hits this cut head on, and comes as close as anyone could to making this his own - much like with Vai's contributions, I had hoped that this bunch would take a few liberties with this classic that everyone knows so very well, and my wishes been accommodated. After my first listening, I asked the producer just how much direction he offered, or Hughes required:

"Considering that pretty much everything that comes out from Glenn’s mouth when he sings is a great take to begin with, we didn’t really sweat it that much. But I did tell him that I wanted his stamp on the song and not a mere copy of Gillan’s original performance. I just had to make sure he was gonna go for a “bigger than life outburst of personality” type of take. Once we cleared the concept, it was downhill and within one hour the magic was done. I love when I can help Glenn to quickly get into that mode, because once he gets where you wants to go, as some Texas boys used to say, it’s a 'vulgar display of power' from there on!"

Anyone who has ever heard Highway Star loves Jon Lord's organ playing - especially the fleet fingered solo that has thrilled us for the last forty years. When I first heard that Hughes, Vai, and Smith were tackling this literal Everest of Rock, I wondered what they were going to do about paying their propers to the late, great Lord. Would Vai do all the heavy lifting, or would they find someone willing to take a stab at it? Lauchlan Doley got the call, and his playing will make you very happy. Grossi on Doley:

"Lauchlan's keyboards were done before Jon’s passing, and they were another great addition to the final result. It’s difficult to balance out a huge organ sound with Vai’s wall of six-strings, but I am really happy with the result, it’s very organic."

Fabrizio Grossi is about to see his stock go up - this cut, off this record is going to change the way the world looks at tribute albums.Of course, I'm not so foolish as too imply that this cover in any way eclipses the original - Deep Purple created perfection with this track, of that there is no question. What I can say is that Grossi has captured the essence that made the track great, and he allowed Vai and Hughes to do what they do better than anyone. They are two of the most unique artists to ever tread the world of rock, and their performances here are nothing less than great. It's tough to take on such a bona fide classic, but this lot has done it a great honor.

I see that someone has thrown up a YouTube of this track, and I must warn you that it does not come close to capturing the sound of what Grossi so graciously shared with me yesterday. It is a stream off what sounds like a bad phone connection. I can tell you that the sound of this is just glorious, and you are about to be amazed when you hear the record.

Thanks to Fabrizio Grossi, Glenn Hughes, and everyone involved with this project.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Eclipse - Bleed and Scream - As If Nirvana Hadn't Happened

Eclipse's Bleed and Scream is one hell of a good hard rock record. As good as any I have heard since Black Country Communion showed up out of nowhere in 2010 to remind the world of well written, played, and sung loud guitar rock. If you've ever for a moment missed great melodic metal, here's a great chance to get reacquainted.

Frontman Erik Martensonn and lead guitarist Magnus Henriksson have aimed high with this record and hit their target:

"When it was taking shape we realized this was to be a monster of an album," says Henriksson. "The whole production is just in your face. The guitar sound is just awesome. Erik's vocals are way better than ever. We worked so hard at this record that it drove us nearly nuts and made us want to scream."

The guitarist is right on the money - this could easily be read as a bout of new material enthusiasm, but when you hear this, you'll agree. Bleed and Scream is another one of those records that showed up on my door unannounced, and managed to blow my mind. The band's 2008 release, Are You Ready To Rock, was a strong album, but the band has worked hard and outdone themselves with Bleed and Scream. They riff like it's 1985, yet this record sounds as contemporary as it gets without being all wrong. There's no Auto-Tune, and there's nothing artificial - this is organically grown product. Every note on this album got played and slaved over until it was just right. This is world class hard rock, no matter how you slice it.

I put on this album, and for the first few moments I will admit that I wasn't expecting to be blown away. It's an occupational hazard, this being somewhat jaded thing. In fact, I hear a lot of records, and very few make it past the first five minutes. I guard my time and energy like a mother tiger does her cubs. I've no time for anything I don't like, and no proclivity for wasting my time with anything negative. I'll leave that for those it serves well - I'm into music for the love, and the love only. Bleed and Scream grabbed me around the neck and kept hold. It's a grower by any measure.

Martensson is an amazing musician - when not fronting Eclipse, he can be found writing, producing, singing and playing with such melodic rock stalwarts as Toto's Bobby Kimball, Jeff Scott Soto, W.E.T., Jimi Jamison, Giant, and a host of others. There's a whole world in which well played and produced rock prospers away from the American scene, and Martensson is one of this world's brightest stars. His songwriting, singing, and playing on this record is nothing short of brilliant. Guitar stars are in short display these days, and it would be a shame if you missed out on Magnus Henriksson's fiery playing. His razor sharp riffing is something to behold - a player with lightening fast chops and tasty musicality, he infuses Bleed and Scream with an astonishing amount of six string thrills per minute.

Henriksson speaks about the record. "We knew we had to do everything better on this album. Every song has the qualities of a single. If we couldn't achieve that we would have never released it. But boy did it turn out well!"

Bleed and Scream is Eclipse's third long player, and with each release they have matured - sure, at times they still come a little too close to something from the past, but twenty-five years have passed since Coverdale made his last great album, so I'm more than willing to be lenient. If I was a young kid and I heard a band that performed this well, and cranked out an album this cool, I'd damn near piss myself with excitement. I don't care what you say, there are never enough great records of any genre, and I'm thrilled to say that this disc hasn't left my desk since I discovered it.

I'm not going to go into individual tracks here, simply because every track is a winner. If you are melodic hard rock friendly, you are going to enjoy this a great deal. I'll leave it to you to discover for yourself when you buy the record.

I remember being in a rehearsal room back in 1990, as the McAuley/Schenker Group rehearsed for their Save Yourself tour, and thinking to myself how wonderful it was that this good of an outfit was getting ready to hit the road with a big hit single in their back pocket. However, no sooner did they hit the road than every radio station in the country went bat shit crazy for a band named Nirvana, and a whole new, stripped down sound. There was a new sheriff in town and things haven't been the same since. Ever since, there has never been quite enough high quality melodic hard rock being served up to satisfy my daily requirements. As I said earlier, I'll take all the great rock I can get, and this record delivers great rock in a big way.

Eclipse has been around since early in the millenium, but this is the first they've crossed my path, and I'm glad they have. If you're familiar with the band, be ready to be well pleased by their progress and this new album - if you're not familiar with these Swedes, give them a spin and be set to enjoy a great trip.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Robert Cray Band: Nothin But Love - Cray Graduates To True Greatness

I know, I know. Robert Cray - he's been great since the 70s. He's sang well, played great guitar, written some soulful rhythm & blues, and generally been a sharp dressed man, but, he never made a great album. Lots of excellent, cool records - but never great. Nothin But Love changes that - this is a great album by any measure, and Crays has graduated from blues great to great great. What I call, Ray Charles great.

Produced by the current King Midas of producers, Kevin Shirley, and assisted by his longstanding band of bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Jim Pugh, and drummer Tony Braunagel, Cray has trimmed every bit of fat, focused all of his musicality, and achieved a goal worthy of the work and endless dedication he has given to his art. Lifetime achievement? This is a great one.

Twenty seconds into (Won't Be) Coming Home and I know this is Robert Cray's finest hour. A smart drum fill announces his arrival and it's off to the races. I can hear the nickle wraps on the strings of his signature Stratocaster singing through his amp's tubes on their path to the speaker cone, and into the microphone. I can even discern the wood in the speaker cabinet. Crisp, clean, lean, and juicy - this is a textbook recording of an amazing performance. The Robert Cray band has always delivered the goods, but this truly sounds like a greatest hits album comprised of all new material - quite a thrill.

The Cray Band takes a trip to the Bermuda triangle via The Big Easy on Worry, the second track. The fat, clean, and sleek bass playing of Richard Cousins gets things moving as an insistent beat supports some fine voodoo piano comping. Cray lets the band provide the geographic compass - he does what he does so well, and it sits perfectly astride the arrangement. Cray is one of the few blues guitarists who can mine familiar territory and always make it ound fresh. He's never been in better voice, and his songwriting is at its best. He's gotten better like a fine wine.

I'll Always Remember You features a brilliant horn arrangement that posts a sophisticated set of twists and turns which lead to the singer's first verse - and whether it's the soulful lead piano, Robert's thick as molasses vocal delivery, or the horns's refusal to take a back seat, this tune is relentless and you'll be replaying it several times to catch all of the intense musicality unfold.

Side Dish is served up in the style of Cray's college frat party past (you remember Cray in Animal House, right?). Uptempo dance jams can often be cliched and utterly avoidable, but Cray and his band sound like they're hitting the beach for the first night after a couple of years at Berklee. This smokes - I'm not a big fan of the genre, but this is delightful.

Robert Cray has always been a confident performer, but Nothin But Love catapults him into 'Ray Charles-cool' territory. His long and auspicious career has finally delivered him into the realm of the ascended masters of rhythm & blues. A Memo could easily have come from the pen of Gregg Allman on one of his more inspired days. Cray owns it, but it's a great example of a man looking around to see what might work in conjunction with his own recipe.

Selling the song is the blueman's job - at the end of the day all Cray has in his tool box is his guitar, and his voice. Blues Get Off My Shoulder shows just what a tremendous salesman of the blues Robert Cray has become. This could almost be a tribute to the late, great Gary Moore, and I can pay a slow blues no greater respect.

Producer Kevin Shirley shows again the value of a helmsman who knows the art of songwriting and arranging as well as he knows his way around a mixing board. This record is sonically perfect, but more importantly, Shirley has worked closely with Cray to remove every bit of unnecessary information and to stick to the facts. The skill and precision with which the band negotiates the curves will stun you in the finest fashion. Shirley has captured it all magnificently.

Percy Sledge would have sounded right at home singing Fix This had it been written in 1969 instead of 2012, and if radio really still played the hits, this would be one. I can hear Casey Kasem waxing about it even now. Cray plays a deliciously fat and sultry solo on this tune that fits like one of his well tailored suits.

Keyboardist Jim Pugh is Nothin But Love's secret weapon - whether he is sitting behind the Hammond Organ or a Steinway Piano his playing is incredible. On every song his presence is immense, yet never obtrusive. He comps, he vamps, fills and silently solos on every tune - never stealing the show, but lighting it up wonderfully. You could strip this album to just keyboard, bass, and drums and it would still be a fine record. That's how great a band Cray as beside him.

I'm Done Cryin' is one of 'those' Cray tunes. No matter how many we've heard, we yearn for another - a heartache set to music. There's an almost Beatle-esque/pop syncopation to the tune's verses that leads into a sinfully string soaked chorus - this is what we came for. When Cray hits a note of falsetto leading into one line, I got goosebumps - no shit, I got goosebumps.

This record connects with me on many levels, but I may be most enamored with the manner in which Robert Cray has stepped up to the plate - he has always been the captain of his own ship, but this sounds like he went deeper, reached a place he's only looked up to in the past, like maybe the stakes were higher, or maybe he felt more free to leave nothing hanging, or to the imagination.

Just to check myself, I always do a reference/litmus test when I am very taken by a new record, and this album passed easily. I interspersed it with some of Cray's past, and up against albums by Sam Cooke and Eric Clapton, and it stood proudly, unwavering in its glory.

Sadder Days wraps up the album, a thoughtful meditation which elegantly winds down a beautiful retreat into rhythm & the blues. Hark, the angels sing, Long Live The King.

Out August 27th on the Provogue label in the UK, August 28th in Northern America.

Thanks to Peter Noble and Will Taylor at Noble PR, Provogue Records, and Tracey at TMA Publicity.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Andy Fraser: All Right Now - Life, Death and Life Again

Andy Fraser's New Autobiography
"Listen to the songs, the minor key masterpieces of melancholy and growling, restrained power - desensitize your ears and eyes from what's happened in music since and you might begin to understand what Al Kooper meant when he boldly declared, 'Free is the greatest band that ever lived.'"

Andy Fraser has always been solidly challenged by his blessings. Whether in finding fame with Free while still in his teens and writing one of rock and roll's greatest and most enduring anthems, or discovering who and what he is as a gay man, it seems that as soon as he climbed one mountain he would be unceremoniously thrown down the backside by circumstances that could only be controlled by powers that demanded that he work harder, and learn more - to keep growing and never be given the luxury of resting on his laurels.

No sooner than he had found fortune and adulation in the world of music, his band imploded under the weight of fame, addictions, and egos. Then after many years and great struggles, he realized he was a gay man living a straight life that could never be reconciled without great changes. He bravely made those changes - only to then be stricken with a life threatening illness that would see him through a journey that takes him from being almost suicidally confused to spiritually sound and robust in health.

Thankfully, Fraser is a resilient man not easily defeated. All Right Now - Life, Death and Life Again, Andy's soon to be published autobiography, does a grand job of telling a true tale that has long been a rock and roll fable filled with suppositions, rumors, and untruths by way of the vagaries of time, the unreliability of memories, and, in the case of Fraser's once announced death, great exaggeration. In fact, I remember one occasion in which I was talking with superstar sideman/bassist Carmine Rojas, and when I mentioned having recently communicated with Fraser, Rojas replied, "Andy Fraser? Of Free? Andy Fraser of Free? You mean he's alive?" Upon realizing that Andy was indeed, still above ground, Rojas was thrilled by the news and asked how he could contact the British musician to pay his respects, and say hello. We had been discussing great songwriters who were also bassists, and Rojas described his respect for Fraser's talent and accomplishments with great awe.

Understandably, 'with great awe' is often how fans refer to Andy Fraser's career, and also with an equally great sense of mystery. This book resolves many questions and solves most of the mysteries. All except one. Which I will venture into later.

I have to admit - I'm a huge Fraser/Free fan, and that I read this book in one sitting. In fact, the only problem I have with this book is that it is about 200 pages less than I would have liked. That being said, it is one hell of an enthralling read. Andy Fraser tells his story and leaves out few pertinent details - without making anyone the bad guy, and always being incredibly forthright about himself - these are the true litmus tests of the art of autobiography. Co-written with author Mark Hughes, the book is lean and true. Too lean? Well, maybe for someone like me who is as interested in hearing not just of Fraser's musical exploits, but also his dealing with severe illness, his views on spirituality and religion (always more valid when delivered by someone who has seen both great victories and difficult defeats), and his views on world affairs - usually I'm just in it for the music, but Fraser offers insight and a world view that is uncommonly perceptive. Eighty percent of the book covers the history of Free, though, in case you are curious - yeah, you'll want this book in your collection.

Here are a couple of samples of his views on old friends:  
"Paul Rodgers has written some of my favorite songs of all time and his two sides were very well expressed in Free. On the one hand, he's the Northern macho man - very earthy, aggressive, not saying much, the Clint Eastwood of rock. On the other hand, he's a sort of folk balladeer - very sensitive and that gave us some beautiful haunting melodies. I used to think of him as a lonely soldier boy on a misty battlefield, dead all around him, but going on, unstoppable but very melancholic. I thought that was a wonderful side to him....We were competitive with each other, but in a healthy way - pushing each other, driving the other one on. I felt as close to him as a brother. If I was the mind of the band, Paul R was the voice - and what a voice. For me, we could not have had a more appropriate singer."

"Koss was the band's soul. The guitar is the emotion in a band anyway, but he put so much emotion into it, yet he never overpowered the sound. He was sympathetic and complementary to it. He played from a heart that was forever on his sleeve, and that really touches people. He had this fantastic vibrato technique, so good that even Eric Clapton asked him how he did it once - really made Koss's day, that."
In the case of Rodgers, the relationship between the two men is terribly complex, and to this moment unresolved. Maybe because, as Fraser implies, they have chosen to deal with each other respectfully, and without controversy - which in this case may be the wrong approach. Perhaps it's time for these two titans to sit down and have the face to face to which neither has yet acquiesced. In terms of unresolved issues, there is that of the catalog of the band Free - it died almost before it had gotten off the ground, and perhaps there is a point to be taken that as great as he was, Paul Kossoff was not the guitarist to lead the way for the combined artistry of Rodgers and Fraser. Between Kossoff's resistance to pursuing music outside the band's blues roots, the creative differences between Fraser and the man he describes as perhaps the best singer on the planet, and the crazy demands of stardom 70s style, maybe there had to be a forty year cooling off period. Could it be that only now the pair could speak and possibly resume their brilliant but short lived partnership?

Maybe I ask for too much, but I am willing to ask.

This book, as entertaining as it is, is just not enough. I'd say that it stands next to Bobby Whitlock's - Rock and Roll Autobiography  as one of the best rock reads in ages - so much so that it has invigorated my desire to imagine not just one more great record from one of rock's best couplings, but even a larger desire to see once great friends become great friends once again.

Of course, this is presumptuous as hell of me, and it may even detract from my review of this excellent book, but I think I speak for the majority of music fans who have never let the Free flag founder, even when the band's members couldn't be bothered. There is the question of who would play guitar once you got Rodgers and Andy to speak out their differences and hammer out some tunes, but the way I see things, nothing is impossible. If Andy Fraser could overcome all the obstacles that have been before him to come out being such a strong and positive force - to be able to succeed on his own path and write such a wonderful and honest tale, anything can happen.

Paul Rodgers - here's a man with every reason not to do such a thing. He's worked his entire life to have the reins of one of the greatest careers in music history, and has earned his right to be his own man, and his own man only. However, what would cap this career off in a better fashion than to come full circle and not just ride out a champion, but to do what to this point has never been done, and truly recreate magic? His story has always seemed somewhat without the proper topping - what better time than now, while he is still at the very top of his game as a performer?

Of course, it could well be that Fraser does not need the aggravation. He is successful by any measure, and has his hands full running his McTrax record label, and the burgeoning career of his young protege, Tobi, who made big waves in his recent tour of England and at The Isle of Wight Festival this summer. No one could blame him for taking the higher road and refusing to open up old wounds now. However, he appears to have this fierce streak of bravery.

Bravery is this book's name - it is the way that Andy Fraser has lived his life - remember, when Island Records wanted to re-name his band The Heavy Metal Kids, he was the one who replied, "Listen, if you want to sign us, our name is Free."

Andy Fraser has been free for years - read this book and be prepared to be inspired, invigorated by his life, and the potential for us all.

Whatever the future holds for Fraser and Rodgers, they have certainly earned the great love and respect they receive from true lovers of music everywhere.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

UFO - One More For The Rodeo?

I keep having a recurring dream. I'm sitting in a tall, comfortable chair in the control room of a recording studio. My ears are ringing, and I'm pleasantly laughing at a mix of a track that has just been finalized. Also laughing beside me is my friend, producer Fabrizio Grossi, who has just done the mix. I look up at the glass that separates the control room from the studio, and in the reflection I see the members of UFO's classic lineup, and they too have large grins upon their faces. Then I wake up - with a smile on my face.

Now, this could be wishful thinking on my part, or it could potentially be prescience. Let's consider the possibilities.

The story of UFO goes back more than four decades - after knocking around Europe semi-successfully for several years, they one day found themselves without a guitarist. In a moment of show business tradition, they opt to not cancel a gig, but to soldier on, and they do so by shanghaiing the guitarist from their opening act, a band of German upstarts called The Scorpions. The guitarist is a seventeen year old man by the name of Michael Schenker. Things went so well that the band asked him to join up full time, and the young guitarist took the plunge.

Now, here we are, and 2013 will mark the 40th anniversary of the rather unholy, but glorious musical marriage of Phil Mogg and Michael Schenker. I'm glad to say that both are healthy and happy - Mogg is leading UFO into yet another American tour beginning in October, and Michael is continuing a year of very successful touring with his year's second trip to the colonies. Both are wrapping things up in December and heading back to their neighborhood in England - yeah, they live in the same neighborhood. Even wayward bassist Pete Way is in the same enclave. Had this occurred twenty years ago it may have resembled a war zone, or at least an opium den of inequity.

Today, things are much different than they were, and it is all for the better. Mogg and Schenker are both relatively sober and content. Hell, even Pete has finished a new record and appears to be doing well.

For several months, the Internet has been rumbling with rumors of a possible classic lineup reunion for UFO - both camps still rely very heavily on UFO's 1979 live album, Strangers in the Night, for their set lists, and for the first time Mogg and Schenker are not just sober and sane, they are both remembering the good times not the bad, and smiling when one another is mentioned. The potential for a reunion that would actually be done for the right reasons is finally a real possibility. Not for the money, not for contractual obligation, but for the fans, the players, and the legacy.

One could easily argue that things are fine just as they are - that perhaps it might be well advised to let sleeping dogs lie. I've heard this argument many times, and while I see the point, I also see it as the cowards way out. Nothing is every gained without a risk being taken.

Michael Schenker's last album, Temple of Rock, was a solid effort, and certainly showed the guitarist to be in great form. However, nobody called it a great record, and it suffered from a lack of cohesion and the inevitable piecemeal result of having a melange of singers on board.

Seven Deadly is UFO's latest album and it showed the band to be in good shape, especially Phil Mogg, but it was noticeably weak in the riff writing department. What made the classic UFO lineup great was always Schenker's guitars, mixed with Mogg's lyrical sophistication and melody writing. Not to detract from any player - it is simply a fact that Michael Schenker is one of the most gifted composers in the realm of rock.

What we are left with is the fact that when together, Phil and Michael were very synergistic. Neither has ever matched the brilliance they share as a team. I don't know exactly how they feel about this, but by a huge margin, their fans favor and fervently hope for another reconciliation.

The time is right. Both are still creatively strong, they've lessened their dependence on intoxicants, and both are coming off a very successful year.

Pete Way. One thing I really did love about Schenker's Temple of Rock was Pete Way's bass playing. Pete is at best the wild card - he's been down a long road of debauchery that has left him to be seen as a rock and roll untouchable. He did sound great on the Schenker album, though, and I have to think that the chance to dance once more upon the boards of glory would be enough to wake him up sufficiently. Way wrote some of UFO's most heralded riffs, and his bass playing has always been just right for the band. I also understand that his past has made his very presence on American shores an issue. Even if he could not tour, he would be essential for a new record, and his performance on Schenker's last album shows that he can still play some fiercely melodic bass. In the event he can't tour America, that can be faced later.

I've spoken with a lot of people who are close to either Schenker or Mogg, and I have yet to hear the word no when possibility of a reunion is discussed. In fact, I'm being told that this is very much being considered. Some have bandied about the possibility of the UFO song Waving Goodbye being Mogg's swansong, but I don't think that's the case, at all. If Mogg was saying so long, I think he'd do it in a splashier way than another jaunt up and down the California club circuit. His legacy deserves better than that, and I think when he hangs up the mic for the final time, I hope it will be worthy of his brilliant career, and his wonderful fans.

UFO is a band which is still bristling with positive energy, and more than capable of flexing it's musical muscles. Michael Schenker is playing as well as he ever has, and seems poised for a creative rebirth that has amazing potential - with his brother wrapping up his touring obligations with Scorpions, the possibility of the two brothers working together again is almost guaranteed, but Rudolf has many projects to be completed and he will surely require some time off after several years of road work. In the meantime, there will never be a more perfect moment for UFO to create another batch of brilliance with Michael Schenker. Neither the band, nor Schenker has ever recreated the glory of Strangers in the Night, and the fans of both seem to be rooting very heavily for this to happen.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned a scenario that occurred in a dream I dreamt. I mentioned producer Fabrizio Grossi - wonder why? I'll tell you. I've been going back and forth with Grossi of late on some very interesting projects, and I am of the opinion that his career is about to explode into the stratosphere. There wasn't a record released last year that sounded better than his production of Leslie West's Unusual Suspects. The guitars sounded huge, in your face, and literally jumped out of the speakers. West's vocals sounded simply amazing - even the raging guitars never once got in their way. The rhythm section of Grossi and Kenny Aronoff resembled the brutal beauty of Bonzo and John Paul Jones. Cameo appearances by diverse group of superstars such as Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde, and Steve Lukather all came across wonderfully, and never once clashed with West's performances - they all fit perfectly. From beginning to end, the record relentlessly demanded to be heard. Grossi is as good as anyone currently twirling knobs in the realm of hard rock. Wait until you hear his mix of Glenn Hughes, Steve Vai, Chad Smith, and Lachan Doley doing Highway Star for the soon to be released Re-Machined album celebrating 40 years of Deep Purple's Machine Head. You'll be amazed. Plus, he is beholden to neither UFO or Schenker via previous engagement, and is said to be a delight to work with, being a player himself. Then there's the fact that this strange dream really did occur, and I'm not usually given to such things.

There you have it. I've been bombarded over the last two months by questions related to the possibility of a classic lineup UFO reunion, and I have had the pleasure of having little birds whispering about such possibilities in both my ears (read as: from sources very close to both camps). I must say that I have not spoken directly with any of the principals concerning this issue, but again, all talk from both sides has sounded very promising.

In the meantime, drop me a line here in the comments letting me know your thoughts, and as always, thanks for reading.

Apologies to all I have named and rumored about - I am always a fan first, and willfully admit to greedily wanting to hear what I think would be something wonderful. In any event, I wish every success to all, and great thanks for a lifetime of great music.

What say fellas, one more for the rodeo?  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fen - Of Losing Interest: Old School Values, New School Sounds

Fen's  Of Losing Interest reveals that in the two years since their last release, 2010's Trails Out of the Gloom, the band haven't been standing still. This album is a significant leap forward in terms of songwriting, vocal adventure, and instrumental interplay. Everything hinted at in the band's three previous releases seems now realized.

The band's sound has metabolized from having prog-rock, metal, and funky folk leanings to being a seamless blend of styles and sophisticated structures. Where previously there may have been a bit too much effort in stylistic juxtaposition, the band now wears their near limitless diversity like a second skin.

From a whip start of tightly meshed metal, Riddled eases into a mid-tempo groove as frontman Doug Harrison sings smoothly melodic verses over a steady beat that has me fondly remembering the slightly off kilter drum work that made The Police such a winner. A great drummer can make a band great, and there's no doubt that Nando Polesel is a great drummer. Three minutes in and the band throw off convention and unleashes some mighty prog/metal fury. Most generally the fusion of metal and progressive rock makes me a bit seasick, but this is smooth sailing all the way. A great kickstart.

Extremely musical drummers can make bands, and I make no bones about the fact that everything on display here is top notch, and while there's no shortage of musical musculature to be found, the crafty drumming keeps this way above the din of today's rock. Of Losing Interest is a song that covers a tremendous amount of ground - it's a perfect example of the band's growth and maturity. This is wickedly complex, but it never loses the listener.

Nice For Three Days is a huge slab of powerful rock, and its bellicose crunch immense, but it stays solid and doesn't sound harsh, nor muddy. It sucks you in to a wind tunnel of molten metal and vocals that seem to evoke pleasant memories of the spirit of Freddie Mercury. Muscular and melodic - not an easy combination, and Fen are doing it quite well and making it sound very natural.

Slinky sophistication is found all across this disc, and on A Long Line everyone is on point playing their parts - the parts sit well together, but are quite distinct on their own. The band's longtime producer Mike Southworth pulls great performances out of Fen, and supplies an excellent job of engineering and mixing. No lock step repetition, endless unison parts that make such a mess of so much modern rock. The prog portion of this tune is a splendid example of the possibilities when mixed with metal.

Fen is a great example of what happens when a band is allowed to develop - this is their fifth long player, and it shows that the group now has a great sixth sense when it comes to instrumental interplay, and Harrison's vocals are never at odds with the music. In an age in which success is a do or die matter, it's a joy to hear what can happen to a band when it is allowed to mature naturally.

Light Up The End slows things down with a pastoral acoustic guitar intro that soon gives way to some great dynamic interplay that should have fans of bands like King Crimson, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest singing high praises for modern days. Modern metal that delivers hope and beauty instead of constant angst and anger is a breath of needed fresh air. Classic rock enthusiasts will have no trouble seeing the path from the previous generation to 2012 with this record.

Pilot Planet is a simmering stew that connects the dots of rock history perhaps more successfully than any band has yet accomplished. I hear sonic references that take me from hard rock, heavy metal, progressive rock, jazz fusion, and even some reminders that new wave music had some heavy hitters - this record sounds like today, but it doesn't alienate, or discourage connections to the past history of rock. So often, modern rock sounds so at arms with its past that one wonders, why the hostility? Fen is cutting edge, but when they break out an incredible rock riff like the one that rings in Snake Path you appreciate their nod to history - it's a cinematic masterpiece in the mold of the best of Judas Priest in the ways of majesty and imagination with all the dynamics of very sophisticated modern music.

Fen has finally come completely together as a band, and Of Losing Interest is their first major league record. Hopefully, this record allows the band to tour widely and to continue this stint of growth. The band is on fire - the guitar work of Harrison and Sam Levin is exciting, imaginative, and sonically satisfying. Harrison's vocals and melodies have improved significantly, bassist Jeff Caron is much, much more than a low end roar - his parts are great, his tone is awesome. However, as great as all the performances and performers are on this disc, drummer Nando Polesel takes this record from very good to near classic. Hats off to the whole band, and to Ripple Music, nice job fellows.

Fen - Of Losing Interest: Release Date - August 14th 

Thanks to Fen, and Ripple Music.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bobby Whitlock - Derek's Domino Tells His Tale

Bobby Whitlock: A Rock 'n' Roll Autobiography is one great read. I once again realize why, when done well, autobiography is my favorite type of writing. It's a tough thing to write - you have to be at once egotistical enough to tell your personal tale to the world, and yet humble enough to not make it sound like said world rotates around you. Whitlock has accomplished exactly that with this book.

Derek and the Dominos couldn't last - put together from the ashes of the supergroup that toured as Delaney and Bonnie, many said that Eric Clapton stole the band from the Bramletts. In fact, Clapton cops to this in the book's forward, but I think it is simply a case of destinies being played out. Clapton had to somehow tell the story of his personal Layla, and Bobby Whitlock's voice happened to be the perfect vehicle. It contained as much passion as Eric's, maybe more. Give one quick listen to Bellbottom Blues and it is clear that the blend of these two voices were born to tell this story.
"When I got the chance to form the Dominos, I invited them to come live with me in the English countryside. Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, and Bobby Whitlock took to it like fish to the water. We spent at least a year living together, playing together all day and all night, and getting crazy on every available substance with total abandon. We toured all over England, playing clubs and small venues, with no one knowing who we were, and it was heaven, just making music for the pure fun of it. We also played on George's All Things Must Pass album - in fact, we were the house band. It was a golden period for us all." Eric Clapton from the book's foreward.
Whitlock doesn't know that he's a fantastic storyteller - he's humble, and that's the key to this highway. He tells hundreds of great rock and roll stories in this book, some you've heard and others that will have you scratching your head, laughing, or just mumbling to yourself, "Well, no shit...."

He's involved every step of the way, but he's also a great observer. He rarely defends his many failings, and he doesn't get on a pedestal to proclaim his brilliance, either. He admits that he can sing well, and that he is an accomplished organist. Actually, he's one of the great voice's of American soul music, and his emotional instrumental work puts him on par with Billy Preston as an organist.

The book follows Bobby from his upbringing to his discovery in Los Angeles by then Shindig television artist Delaney Bramlett. Bramlett is remembered as one of the most talented musicians to come out of the American South, but also one of the most difficult. To say that Whitlock's relationship with Bramlett is complicated is a big understatement. Their relationship is epic, and Shakespearian. Whitlock spares no one as he unfolds a tale that leaves a lot of scars, but he never villainizes Bramlett without also pointing out that without his direction, and mentoring Whitlock may never have been in the position to tell the tale.
"I actually learned more about singing and writing songs and playing rock and roll from Delaney than I will ever be able to recount. There was just so much to learn from him if you just paid attention. I always did. No one understood the import of the matter like I did. I was all ears when I was around Delaney. He told me, "Surround yourself with people that are as good at what they do as you are, or what you do." I took that one step further, though, and I try to surround myself with people who are better at what  they do than I am at what I do. And I'm real good at playing a Hammond B3 and singing." Whitlock on Delaney Bramlett.
This book is filled from beginning to end with great nuggets of rock and roll history. There's a great chapter that finally breaks down the involvement of Derek and the Dominos as the house band on one of rock's greatest records, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Bobby goes through the album song by song and gives a tremendous play by play - this alone is worth the price of the book for any serious rock reader. But believe me, there is so much more. A problem I have with most rock books is that they spend too much time on wrecking hotels, and not enough on the music. Whitlock crashes more exotic sports cars than any Indy driver, and they are some spectacular cars and tales, but there's a tremendous amount of real estate that covers his rich musical history.

It's also a great example of what is known as 'the cautionary tale.'

Bobby Whitlock may have expended so much energy during the years of Delaney & Bramlett, Derek and the Dominos, and his solo albums that it ended up costing him the next few decades. Living at the pace he describes throughout the book puts one in mind of a runaway train - it's on the tracks, but you don't know for how long. Sure enough, the train derails, yet the years have given him the focus to look back and describe it with an eerie accuracy, and the proper compassion. It is a tremendous testament to the author and his wife and musical partner, Coco Carmel, that the events and subsequent tribulations did not end up embittering them both.

This is one heck of a story - we get taken from Whitlock's childhood in Memphis to the streets of LA, and across the world to London, England and back again. No one is spared, but everyone is redeemed. Life is like that - you're going to have some struggles, some successes, and some comeuppances. Bobby Whitlock has had more than most - he started off pretty low on the totem pole, he rose higher than he'd ever dreamed, and he crashed so hard that it is nearly miraculous (maybe just miraculous) that he has not just lived through it, he has lived through it to be a better man in a better place who is willing to bare his soul in a way that can teach us all.

Don't go straight to it, but the last chapter will make your day, and make you glad you bought this great book. I only write about what I really love, and I really loved reading this book.

Now, Eric - how about one more record with the remaining Domino?