Friday, July 31, 2009

Phish-Day I

A lot of emotional baggage got opened and the colorful contents of that baggage flew up into the air in a plume of pungent excitement when Phish walked onto the stage at Red Rocks for the first time in 14 years. The audience was noticeably older than the last time, indiciating that it is still the same folks following the band. They were a bit kinder and gentler too. Less in-your-facedness about the whole scene. Like the later-period Grateful Dead audiences however, the chemical enhancement has reached new and heroic proportions. It was a party, and like I said, when the band hit the stage it was pandemonium. The first set was solid, but didn’t catch fire until midway when a long, hynotic “Moma Dance” got the crowd really going. It was followed in short order by a pretty “Silent In The Morning” and crowd pleasing set enders “Stash” and “Possom.” Second set was another matter. The band came out firing on all cylinders and performed a solid 40 minutes of brilliance before stopping to take a breath. “Mike’s Song,” “I am Hydrogen,” “Weekapug Groove,” “Story Of The Ghost” and “Wolfman’s Brother” all proved to be perfect forums for Trey Anastasio’s tight, ballsy soloing. Clearly sober and totally focused he played as well as I’ve seen him play since their early 90’s heyday. The entire band seemed completely focused and serious about it all, but played with abandon. Frontmen Anastasio and Mike Gordon in particular impressed me. Page looked a little tired and drummer Fish also looked like he didn’t fully have his touring legs yet, but these are quibbles, the entire band performed admirably. Finishing the set with one of their hardest to perform songs “David Bowie” left the crowd screaming and the encore of The Stones’ “Loving Cup” was the cherry on the cake. A great opening night! Nothing wildly unexpected or experimental, just a solid, fully-packed can of Phish.

A few other things worth noting about the experience;
1) Not a drop of rain fell. Amazingly, it was a perfect Red Rocks night.
2) Lighting Designer Chris Kuroda remains, in my opinion, the fifth member of the band, and the most impressive artist in his field. His lights are spectacular, moody, exciting, subtle and over-the top all at the same time.
3) The show was as crowded as I’ve ever seen Red Rocks. Either a lot of people snuck in, or it was over sold. It wasn’t a problem though, because as stated the crowd was incredibly cool.
4) Parking was another issue. As part of the agreement with the town of Morrison, all Phish fans- those with and without tickets were given equal access to the park. I get it actually: to avoid a repeat of the problems of 1996 (which were totally media driven and over-stated) you corral all the Phish in one pond. Fine. BUT-the ticketless were allowed to grab all the real parking spaces and those who actually had paid for tickets found themselves in triple auxiliary secret hidden parking lots almost a half mile from the venue. That was totally insane and absolutely the wrong thing to do.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Girls Rock!

Thursday, July 30. Day 4.
We're definitely over the hump now. The campers don't seem to be moving with much urgency, but the volunteers sure are. Most of the conversations I overhear from the kids are more about what they're gonna do onstage, and not about their actual song. I remember the thoughts I had when I played my first performance in front of a crowd...I talked a big game beforehand about my moves and how I would act and the little skits me and my bandmates would do. But once onstage, I just froze and stared at my instrument wishing I could hear myself, and then regretting that i did none of the fabulous moves I had fantasized about. Ugh. I wonder if the girls will go through the same thing. The volunteers are more focused on the showcase coming up (2 days away...yikes!) and are busy honing in on what needs to be done from now until then with both the logistics of the camp and the performance details with their bands.

We're also at the point in the week where we've all been around each other for so many hours that we are starting to relax more. The girls are more comfortable with each other and it seems like perhaps they're starting to lose some of their focus, replacing it with an overall enjoyment of new friendships and a preference for playing games and talking with each other. I noticed with my band anyway, that for the first time they came to our second afternoon band practice with less conviction than previous days. They were more tired and much more in the mood for play rather than playing in a band. Even I would have preferred to lay on the floor with them, asking silly questions and playing catch with whatever object was close by. Luckily Coach Seth had a plan and took each girl individually to go over their parts. Then she made them all play through the song about 5 times, making small corrections and last minute criticisms. Earlier, we had determined who's doing what for each of their solos. Maggie-May is actually gonna lift her bass behind her head and play a small riff of "Green Onions" for hers. Awesome...I just love that girl!
Anyway, I am much more hopeful about the band's musical togetherness than I was at the earlier practice today. I'm assuming tomorrow will be the day we just cement it all and play the tune 5 billion times (or as many times as we can in 2 hours). And I also suspect that tomorrow we may just begin to realize that it's almost over and we'll start looking at each other a little differently; as though we know we're about to say our goodbyes soon. My heart gets heavy just thinking about it.

Today we did a pretty cool excercise where we all taped a piece of heart-shaped paper to our backs and everyone else wrote on it why we rocked. It was great to see 5-8 kids and volunteers at a time, in a train writing on each other's backs. The kids really made sure that they got everyone; the girls shuffled around each other saying "Did I do you?" To see the faces of the girls as they read their hearts was really special. It would be really cool if we all did this once or twice a year, not only to be reminded of what positive things people think about us, but also to identify all the positive things we think about everyone else. It's so easy for us to focus on the things that annoy us, rather than on what we truly enjoy about each other. Perhaps instead of shoving our faces with enough food to feed plenty of homeless people on Thanksgiving, we might consider slapping a heart on our family's backs and writing on it all the things we love about them. For now though, I'm envisioning smiling campers clutching their hearts as they retire from yet another full day of self esteem building, getting even closer to realizing how truly special they all are!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Tuesday, July 28. Day 2.
Well, I gotta say, I'm so freakin' happy with my band. It's unbelievable to me that 5 girls, ages 8-13 are so respectful and incredibly fair with each other. The decision-making process with that many adults is difficult, let alone with kids. But every day, I'm more and more impressed with these girls.

The group is made up of girls that you most likely wouldn't see hanging out together at school, for whatever reason. But there are no bullys in the band. No one is bossy, no one throws tantrums, no one is mean. I'm telling you, these girls are the best. Zoe is the vocalist. She's smart and extremely talented in that she writes and draws. The first day, she took pictures of her bandmates on her phone and that night drew their faces and brought the drawing to class for possible use as the band logo. Alexis is the guiarist and is prim, proper and very softspoken. You have to really get close to her to hear what she's saying. She's the quiet type that everyone wants to hear an opinion from cuz when she does talk, it's usually smart and well-thought out. She contributed to the song's topic on day one and got Zoe's juices flowing on the song lyrics. She may not be too loud in a group setting, but she's very effective in one-on-one relationships. Bella is our drummer and after her first lesson, she was constantly tapping out a beat with her drumsticks no matter where she was. She's enthusiastic and is the type of girl that gets along with everyone. Such a happy-go-lucky soul; reminds me of me on some level - the girl that just wants to laugh. Maggie May is the bassist with more experience on her instrument than the other girls. The first day, she came in looking very grunge, with a flannel shirt and skinny jeans. She kept to herself and didn't contribute at all in our first band meeting. But it wasn't in a moody i-can't-believe-i'm-in-this-stupid-band kind of way. She responded when spoken to and would give her vote when asked. She was quiet, but still engaged with the group. Sadie is our keyboardist and when she first came to the registration table, I noticed how easy it was for her to verbalize her emotions: "I am so nervous." She is incredibly bright and is also a great artist; drawing robots is her specialty. She certainly gets attached to ideas (think: milk & cheese), but does not hold onto them to the point of getting angry when no one else is interested. She can hold her own in a conversation and has a mature sense of humor.

So this morning, the girls had 2 full hours in instrument instruction. After that, the bands got together to learn about zine making and to make a page for a zine that is gonna get printed, copied and handed out to everyone. Being that each of the girls in Trouble at Midnight (TaM) seems to love art and immediately started creating their own, they will be contributing to the camp zine as well as creating 5 different pages for their band zine. Overacheivers, to be sure. After lunch, our loud practice was spent with the instruments learning to listen to the bass & drums for the beat and Zoe figuring out how to fit her already-written chorus into the music. So far, she had written the first verse as well as the chorus but was having a hard time hearing it with the music being played. That's OK. We've still got 3 1/2 days to get it down (gulp)!

We had an hour at the end of the afternoon in "soft" practice (no plugged-in instruments) to work on lyrics. Well, first Seth had get the band's agreement to hold off on discussing what to wear and how to do their hair for the showcase until after they've written lyrics and music to the song. Friday will be the day we hammer down those very important details of what the band is gonna look like onstage. For now, we need to finish the words to the song. So the instrumentalists heard the words to the one written verse for the first time and everyone liked it. The subject and direction of the song was identified and the girls set out to work on the lyrics. Again, as I've said many times...I am so impressed watching this process with these girls. Even Maggie May, on this second day, was completely into it. Every girl had a part in everything the band decided on. The unspoken rule was to vote on any decision, no matter how small (which likes & dislikes to put on their camp zine page, for instance), and the girls responded so well to the fairness of it all. Incredibly and perhaps subconsciously, they've completely created a safe environment for themselves in which to experess their thoughts and opinions, even when what they shared wasn't fully accepted. What an amazing feat for 5 girls to accomplish pretty much on their own!

So we had 20 minutes left and all we had left to write was the 3rd verse. We were definitely getting giddy at that point, and Sadie especially was less inclined to sit still and focus. I told them that if they got this done in 20 minutes, I'd give them a treat the next day. So we tried to refocus (I especially liked the part of trying to find a word that rhymes with feet. It's incredible how easy it was for me to revert to a 9-year old: how about, i gotta rock out before it starts to SLEET. or, why don't you just call me PETE. or, i was grooving down to the MEAT. don't make me sit on my SEAT...luckily it made the girls giggle!). But Sadie was focused a bit too much on this so-called treat I said I'd bring. I said how did she know it was gonna be candy? Maybe it was a banana. She frowned and seemed to turn back to the lyrics, disgusted that I would even consider a banana a treat. Low and behold, they finished it. And I'm proud to say KUDOS to the girls for creating the vision of a song and determining the structure and lyrics that completely fit that vision. With no fights, pouting or heartache at all. But rather with me and Seth's sarcastic humor and lots of giggling and random jokes from the girls. Geesh, I cannot wait to fit the song in with the music tomorrow! Progress.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Girls Rock Denver is kicking off it's first annual camp this week. I'm volunteering as a band manager and will be sporking about it here all week. Girls Rock is all about empowering girls thru music. For one week, girls 8-18 will gather, learn to play instruments, form bands and will write a song to be performed at the end of camp. (Saturday, Aug.1 at 3 p.m. at the Mercury Cafe)

Sunday, July 26. Volunteer Meeting.
It's nice to finally meet the girls who are going to help run this camp. Bryce, from my favorite local band Everything Absent or Distorted, is one of the only male volunteers in the organization. He's 'allowed' to schlep equipment around and it was good to see him there organizing all the donated musical paraphernalia. All the female volunteers were so cool and the camp kids are so lucky to be guided by such a talented and enthusiastic group who are passionate about girls and Rock! In most non-profit event settings, it always seems so damn unorganized in the beginning. But after awhile, the volunteers were working together, getting shit done and by the end of the day everything was several steps closer to becoming a truly organized event. The week-long Girls Rock Camp is being held in a quaint little church not far from Twist & Shout and thanks to Universal, ADA and WEA, we had plenty of posters and swag to make the place look more like a music venue. We have Girls Rock t-shirts and Girls Rock pins to wear, we now know our roles and we're all pretty excited to get this party started! Um, what? Did you say I need to be there tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.? Until 6 p.m. Every day this week? Awesome. Bring on the Girls!

Monday, July 27. First day at Girls Rock Camp.
The girls started trickling in at 8 a.m. today. Some were dressed like rock stars. Some had rock star attitudes. Some of them were nervous. And others were just waiting for their moment to shine. After being checked in, we all gathered in the main room to introduce ourselves to each other. The girls were instructed to say their names, age, experience with their chosen instruments and why they wanted to be here at Rock Camp. Most answered that last bit with "it seemed fun," but one actually said "cuz i wanna be a Rock Star!" We all cheered and applauded. Good answer!

Instrument instructors came in after that to teach the girls the basics on the instruments they were playing. It was so great to see girls everywhere learning drums, bass, guitar, keyboards and learning how to sing into a microphone. Afterwards, we gathered to talk about music genres. Each girl was to go to the area that indicated a certain genre. I could have predicted that most would choose Rock and Pop, but I was surprised that there were no Hip-Hop takers. We asked them to pick a second choice and some switched from Pop to Rock or Hardcore to Punk. One girl started in Metal and stayed in Metal! In the end, girls found their ways to what they needed in their half-formed bands and most set out immediately to talk about their music. I gravitated to a group of five girls who didn't have a volunteer with them. They were in the Pop category and were in the midst of naming the band. Chocolate something. All they knew is that they wanted it to have Chocolate in there. Come to find out, after a vote only a couple girls wanted that in the name. After a few more ideas were thrown out, they came up with Trouble at Midnight. Cool, right? And to see them work through it without much bickering was pretty impressive. Most of the girls are 8 or 9 years old and they are so respectful. I feel so proud to have such a great group.

After lunch (spaghetti & salad from Noodles & Co.), Trouble at Midnight met outside with our band coach, Seth. Her job is to guide the songwriting process. Not an easy job, in my opinion. But she did a great job directing the girls toward a particular topic and mood of the song. All five of the girls agreed that they wanted the song's topic to be about identity. Oh, I'm tearing up now. How very adult of them. So we started talking about lyrics and came up with 'what we were and what we've become.' Then someone threw out milk and cheese..........was milk, now cheese. Somehow they got hooked on that and the keyboardist fell in love with it. But not everyone was convinced. It was funny to see her afterwards trying to gain alliances, talking to each one separately about whether they liked the milk and cheese theme. She wasn't going to let that go.

During the songwriting workshop, the managers and coaches got together and talked about any problems we were having. We chose 5 girls who got a special I Rock button to reward them for doing great things that day. Then it was time for Trouble at Midnight's loud practice. We got to strap them in with instruments and guide them through the practice. I took Zoe, the vocalist, outside to work through lyrics with her and then she went to the stage to see what the girls were working on. I'm so impressed with the process of it all. Just 7 hours ago, the girls were learning how to hold their instruments. Now they were working through chords and playing on stage with each other.

So, that's where it ended. What a day. Full of nervousness, new friends, punk rock cheerleading and ideas for songs, lyrics and logos. I'll introduce my band in an upcoming blog. I'm so tired I may have to call a cab to come take me home! But damn, color me proud. To watch these girls come out of their shell and become more confident with each passing hour is what it's all about! Rawr!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mile High Music Festival

Multi-day music festivals have been popping up all over the country in recent years.  Bonnaroo and Coachella are the two biggies, while Lollapalooza has reconfigured itself from a touring festival to a huge weekend fest in Chicago's Grant Park.  Here in Colorado, we've seen a couple of big name fests establish themselves in the past couple of years (of course we've had the Telluride Bluegrass Festival for years, but that's another story).  The indie-oriented Monolith Festival will take over Red Rocks in September and this past weekend was the Mile High Music Festival at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.  I was there Saturday and here's my report.

I'll be honest, most of the acts on the bill aren't exactly my cup of tea.  Too mainstream and not enough innovation.  There were, however, a couple favorites of mine who did deliver (more on them below).  The festival grounds are set up on the practice soccer fields and lots just outside the stadium at the Dick's complex.  They cover a huge amount of ground, enough for two main stages at opposite ends, two tent stages holding a couple thousand, and another smaller outdoor stage.  Yes there was a lot of open space too.  Other than food vendors and a few crafts vendors there weren't any events or activities.  The music was the main thing happening, which is a good thing, but if there was a point where there were no bands you wanted to see playing, there was pretty much nothing to do.  The sun was beating down hard all day and there were several tents sent up for shelter and the exciting activity of sitting under a tent.

My friend Eric and I walked in mid-day, just as Lyrics Born was performing a spirited set of live band hip-hop on the Firstbank Stage.  He was definitely the most entertaining of the acts I wasn't that familiar with, but as it was seriously hot out there, we decided to move around some.  I heard bits and pieces of sets by Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Incubus and Greyboy All-Stars.  I caught about a half-hour of G. Love and Special Sauce, mainly because they were playing in a tent.  As the hour of 7:00 began to approach we headed over to the Westword Tent for one of the bands I was actually looking forward to, The Black Keys.  The tent was packed all the way through and we were lucky to get a nice spot by the soundboard.  The duo of Dan Auerbach (guitar, vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) churned out a fantastic hour-plus set of high-energy blues-rock.  The crowd was energetic and appreciative, while the band played with dynamic enthusiasm.  For just two guys they make a helluva racket.

Next it was time to find a spot on the grass in front of the massive West Main Stage for the evening's headliner, Tool.  At first glance, Tool might seem out of place on this lineup, with Incubus being the only other band approaching hard rock.  But Tool's appeal crosses many genre lines, attracting prog, jam and experimental fans as well.  Like Radiohead, they are a band that has achieved massive popularity while keeping their independent spirit and creative energy intact.  A Tool show is always a spectacle and they had their full compliment of lights, videos, backdrops and lasers.  Strong versions of "Stinkfist" and "Schism" came early in the set.  The highlight was when Patrick from The Black Keys joined in for an extended rendition of "Lateralus."  My one complaint is that they only played for about an hour and 15 minutes.  A festival headliner should play for at least two hours, in my opinion, and they were scheduled to play for about that time anyway.  Everything they did play was great, I just wish there were more of it.

After Tool, a good portion of the crowd headed towards the exits.  All that was left was Widespread Panic's late night set.  I'm sure all the 'Spreadheads had a blast but if you weren't a fan there was really no reason to stick around.  Over all, Mile High proved to be a fun, if hot, fest with a laid back atmosphere.  In the future, I'd like to see a little more diverse and adventurous lineup (The Pitchfork Music Festival was the same weekend, so many of the top indie bands were most likely there).  I don't think it will ever rival the big fests but will hopefully turn in to a strong tradition on the Denver music scene.

-- Adam R.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rainbow Music Hall

Some of you have noticed a large, rusty piece of metal hanging from the ceiling above the vinyl section recently. If you look carefully you will see that the word “Hall” can be seen on the metal. This twisted relic is all that remains of the original Rainbow Music Hall. Music fans who have lived in Denver for a number of years will have fond memories of the Rainbow. It was an intimate club with amazing sound, unprecedented sightlines (unless you were behind a beam) and a line-up of famous and soon to be famous stars that makes me drool in hindsight. I saw acts as diverse as Dylan, Miles, Jerry Garcia, The Clash, Yellowman and Cheech and Chong there, as well as countless bands that were underground at the time and would become much more famous later -- The Police, U2, Los Lobos etc. It was a very special place to see a show. People would line up all day, because seats were never reserved, it was always first come first served, and the scene outside was a big party. Inside, there was an un-definable sense of intimacy. The stage wasn’t very high and the audience was right up in the artists’ faces. Standing three feet away from Dylan as he pointed an accusing finger at Allen Ginsburg in the audience and said “don’t be fooled by false idols” during his “Saved” tour was one of many unforgettable experiences there. Obviously, it was a different time and part of my feelings about the place are just that -- my feelings. But, I think if you mention The Rainbow to many long-time Colorado concert goers, you will see their eyes mist up with memories of a special place and a special time. What follows is the tale of how the piece of the sign got from the trash heap of history to our store.

Over the Rainbow
Several years after Ebbetts Field ended its glorious run in 1976, concert promoters Barry Fey and Chuck Morris were looking for a new, bigger room. They finally decided on a location at Monaco and Evans in Southeast Denver and named their new 1,300-seat venue the Rainbow Music Hall. The Rainbow started life as a three- screen movie theater; Fey tore down the walls between the screens to make one large and oddly shaped concert venue where no seat was more than 70 feet from the stage. ListenUp installed the sound system, as well as an on-location recording studio for more live broadcasts and taping. “We created a pretty amazing system – it still gets talked about,” says Walt Stinson. “We were doing more live broadcasting than had ever been done in Denver’s history. And we worked with some of the legends of the music industry, such as Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and U2. It really was a heady time, with a lot of exposure for ListenUp and the Rainbow, which was, like Ebbets, named Billboard magazine’s ‘Club of the Year.’ Jerry Jeff Walker opened the place on January 26, 1979 and the hall was the site of shows by some of the music world's brightest lights, and $2 shows helped start the careers of bands including U2, The Police, Devo, and Pat Benatar. "Most of those $2 shows were amazing shows. These bands were out working the streets. They were playing to the fans," Rainbow manager Dave McKay said.
A who's who of rock 'n' roll, including more than a dozen Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, passed through the 1,400-seat building in 10 years and more than 1,000 concerts. Warren Zevon was the final show in November 1988. In between it hosted Miles Davis, Robin Williams, Talking Heads, Cheap Trick and hundreds more. In October 1981 the Rolling Stones came very close to playing a secret show there, to the point where banners and tickets were printed. Bob Dylan played three shows at the Rainbow in 1980 on his first tour after converting to Christianity, an era when he was playing only his new Christian songs and no classics. Fey recalled a concertgoer calling out mid-set: "Hey Bob - Jesus likes the hits, too!"
"It was a very small, tight, packed place," said Kevin Oxley, who worked security at the Rainbow in the '80s. "It was really a classic place, just one big party atmosphere. By 7 o'clock in the morning people would be lining up around the building, partying and having a great time." Stars such as Stevie Nicks hung out after her show and signed autographs for fans, and Fey was an ubiquitous presence, Oxley said. "It was one of Barry Fey's little gems. He was always there, every night." Chuck Morris, now Denver's most prominent concert promoter, opened the place with Fey and booked 173 shows the first year alone. He remembered seeing U2 in 1981 and immediately calling their high-powered booking agent in New York. One April, the place held 29 shows in 30 days. Catering was usually a King Soopers deli tray.
Here are only some of the Rainbow Music Hall artists: Jack Bruce • Graham Parker & the Rumour • Split Enz • Rick Derringer • Joe Jackson • Prince • The Clash • Stevie Ray Vaughan • The Police • Barry Manilow • Miles Davis • U2 • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers • John Cougar Mellencamp • Eurythmics • Robin Williams • Bob Dylan • The Pretenders • B.B. King • Willie Nelson • Pat Benatar • Blondie • Talking Heads • Nick Lowe • Devo • Warren Zevon • Roxy Music • The Cure • Def Leppard • The Fixx • Hall & Oates • The Ramones • Motorhead • Journey • Andy Kaufman • Judas Priest • Los Lobos • Stevie Nicks • Head East • Lou Reed • Iggy Pop • Robert Gordon • Gentle Giant • Amazing Rhythm Aces • Stryper • .38 Special • Cheech & Chong • Elvin Bishop • Al Jarreau • Nitty Gritty Dirt Band • John Prine • The Chieftains • English Beat • Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five • Laurie Anderson • The Blasters • Dave Edmunds • Bobby Womack • Boomtown Rats • Leo Kottke • Black Flag • Midnight Oil • The Alarm • Sinead O'Connor • Rick Springfield • Howard Jones • The Cult • R.E.M. • Weather Report • Jaco Pastorius • Oingo Boingo • Freddie Hubbard • Stanley Clarke • Til Tuesday • X • Black Flag • Ronnie Montrose • New Order • Psychedelic Furs • John McLaughlin • Jean Luc Ponty • Al DiMeola • Robert Cray • Jerry Garcia • George Benson • Larry Carlton • George Carlin • The Knack • Ozark Mountain Daredevils • Metallica • Bonnie Raitt • The Band • J. Geils Band • Stephan Grappelli • David Bromberg • Lou Reed • Steppenwolf • Bon Jovi • Modern English • The Alarm • Jefferson Starship • Leon Russell • English Beat • Hot Tuna • The Hooters • Maynard Ferguson • Icehouse • Arlo Guthrie • Ray Charles • Circle Jerks • The Church • Echo & The Bunnymen • Jeff Lorber Fusion • Dickie Betts • Ozzy Osbourne • AC/DC • Poco • Third World • Taj Mahal • Little Feat • Asleep At The Wheel • and much, much more!

The End
In April of 2009 Rick Shaw and Craig Keyzer noticed that the historic Rainbow Music Hall sign, which was supposedly protected, had been taken down. Hoping that it had only been disassembled and taken away for storage, Rick and Craig hopped the fence behind the vacant building on April 18th. The sign had been completely and utterly destroyed, a crumpled pile of twisted metal and plastic fragments. Taking a hacksaw, they were able to save the word “Hall” from the base plate of the sign (it had holes drilled for installing lightbulbs behind the yellow plastic letters) and only one complete yellow letter “L”. They also collected as many broken yellow sign fragments as they could.

Friday, July 17, 2009

R.E.M. - Reckoning Deluxe Edition

My feelings about R.E.M. have changed so much over the years. When this reissue showed up on my desk it reminded me of my feelings for them when they first started. At the time they seemed like a huge breath of relief after the angst of punk and the chilling effects of new wave. They were creating rock that felt warm and meaningful, and was in touch with some very basic fundamentals: musicianship, songwriting ability and melodic sensibility. I just adored those first four albums, and I remember seeing them live at increasingly large venues starting with the 200 seat Blue Note in Boulder. By the time they played at the C.U. Events center on Halloween to a sold-out crowd of proto-indie hipsters it seemed like they were destined for greatness. And they were… kind of. Unfortunately, most of their modern albums have left me pretty cold. They can still write hits, and their songs will get in your head and stay there, but they have lost that organic sense of self-discovery that informed their early albums. Going to their shows is an even more alienating experience. They have become, for lack of a better word, huge. I find it harder to embrace immensity than intimacy - who doesn’t?

This Deluxe Edition will take you right back to those heady days in every way. The album itself sounds better than ever. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the first four, but this could be their best batch of songs. Michael Stipe’s willful, arty lyrical obscurity never worked to better effect than on songs like: “So. Central Rain,” "(don’t go back to) Rockville” or “Time After Time.” The deluxe part comes in the form of an entire concert from the era. Disc two is comprised of a 1984 radio broadcast three months after the album was released. The band is firing on all cylinders, and shows no sign of fatigue with the new material. All the songs from Reckoning as well as all the material from their brilliant debut Murmur shine like musical gold. It’s hard to listen to this show and not be swept away on a cloud of nostalgia for this period, when the band’s future seemed so wide open and they seemed to be playing for their lives.

-- Paul Epstein

Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine

You know the phenomenon when a newer band reminds you of an older band and then at some point it shifts from “they remind me of X” to “they are in the same category as X.” This has happened to me with countless bands, starting with Them reminding me of The Rolling Stones and going on through the years. It’s often how you get hooked in the first place. When I first heard Magnolia Electric Co. I thought, hey these guys sound kinda like Neil Young-y, Buffalo Springfieldish type stuff. Strong lead vocalist, writing heady, poetic songs of loss and yearning. Their music has no pretension to being faddish or cutting edge-it is simply well-performed country-folk-rock with no trickery or frills.

With Josephine Magnolia Electric Co. have made the jump. I listened to the new album breathlessly as lead singer Jason Molina stretches his pipes in a more confident way than ever before, proving he is a singer of rare talent and emotional resonance. The songs are beautiful, jewel-like compositions that serve the subject of the lyrics without getting in the way. The subject seems to be the love and loss of a woman named Josephine. The emotional detail of the lyrics is always impressive. There was line after line that I wanted to write down and revisit. There are few albums that inspire this level of scrutiny anymore. I actually was thinking, “I can’t wait to be alone with this record again.” I miss that level of emotional attachment to a new record.

--Paul Epstein

Friday, July 3, 2009

Grateful Dead-Road Trips Vol. 2 No.3-Wall Of Sound

There seems to be two distinct schools of thought about the current Road Trips series of vault releases from the Grateful Dead. Some people are disappointed that they usually don’t consist of full shows, but rather highlights from a run of shows or a tour, attempting to capture the highlights of a specific period instead of just throwing show after show out there. On the other hand, there are those who feel that the full show is a sacred thing and should be presented in it’s entirety to preserve the historical integrity of the moment, and the Road Trips series instead tries to capture the feeling of an entire tour. The current release perfectly points to the strengths and flaws of each argument. Consisting of parts of two fantastically good shows, the theme of the release is an examination of the gigantic, experimental, expensive sound system the band toured with for a short period in the 70’s. Dubbed “The Wall Of Sound” the system provided both a futuristic look and sound for the audience to gawk at, but it offered the band an unparalleled aural canvas to showcase their work. Both shows are glorious in their entirety and deserve to be out with no edits, but taking just the best stuff and leaving out the more mundane makes for an awfully compelling listen.

Disc one is taken from the Des Moines State Fairgrounds on June 16, 1974 and the entire show has a wide-open, spacious feel. It sounds as though the band is playing outside under big Midwestern skies. The highlights are a long, beautifully played version of “Chinacat/Rider” that contains a perfect middle jam. “Eyes Of The World" appears on both discs, and is very different each time. The Des Moines version is led with breathless ferocity by Phil Lesh and finds the band simultaneously tight and loose (the Dead conundrum). At the end of the song Garcia starts spewing out notes a mile a minute and somehow it comes out as “Big River.” The disc ends with a long and very spacey “Playin’ In The Band” that the “Wall Of Sound” allows the listener to examine with surgical precision (or is that Ly-surgical?)

Disc two contains most of the second set of the legendary Louisville, Ky. show of June 18, 1974. This set truly has it all, and has been one of my favorites for years. The centerpiece is a jam that starts as “Weather Report Suite”, Morphs into “The Other One” and then goes deep into space and comes out in a beautiful “Stella Blue.” The playing has a very unique jazzy feel that doesn’t sound like any other show. Again, the wall of sound allows you to discern every cymbal fill and guitar scratch, it really is a magnificent set of music. For a short time, you can get a bonus disc that contains more from these shows, most notably the thunderous “Morning Dew” encore from Louisville, and a jam from Des Moines after “Truckin” that contains about five different jamming themes from the era. It is quite interesting.

So, whole show or highlights? Obviously, I want it all, but this is a pretty stellar release.

Wilco (the album)

Just the other day I was reminiscing with another Wilco fan about the late Jay Bennett. We were recalling the early Wilco shows at the Bluebird, Fox, Boulder Theatre etc., and how much fun it was to see the band at that formative, shambling, somewhat drunken stage in their career. The shows were really unpredictable and really fun. After seeing the movie “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” the mutually destructive nature of the Tweedy/Bennett relationship becomes painfully clear. We now know both men suffered from a variety of personality/substance/psychological issues that prevented a healthy working relationship. Tweedy has stuck with Wilco, and stuck with his current line-up for a number of years now, and in spite of those great early days he has forged a band that actually gets better and better with each album. Just as I was with Sky Blue Sky I am blown away by the world-striding leaps as a songwriter that Tweedy continues to make. In Nels Cline he has found the perfect foil. One suspects that Cline does not try to own the final product creatively the way Jay Bennett did. He is the guitar player. But what a guitar player! He has struck a balance between his naturally avant leanings and a more melodic and controlled approach to his solos.

In a number of ways, Wilco (the album) is Beatle-esque. For instance on “You Never Know” the guitar part is lifted directly from “My Sweet Lord” –era Harrison, and there are many flourishes that scream fabs. Overall though, the album is not at all retro, it is a thoroughly modern-sounding collection of great songs. “You and I” is a lovely duet with Leslie Feist and a likely single. There are upbeat rockers with skronky, backward guitar solos, and tender acoustic ballads with introspective, heartbreaking lyrics. It is a deep well of an album, and the more I listen to it, the more excited I am about the live possibilities of these songs. Because, the live Wilco is another thing all together. They have not been adequately captured on album live yet, but their concerts are a wonder to behold.

Both the great albums and the increasingly exciting live experience point to Wilco being one of the great, original American bands on the scene today. I keep waiting for them to make a slip, but Tweedy has consistently upped the ante with every release and every show. Can’t wait to see them at Red Rocks Tonight.