Friday, December 11, 2009

King Crimson - In The Court Of The Crimson King and Red 40th anniversary editions

King Crimson occupies an interesting place in rock history. They have no hits, very little legacy of mind-blowing live shows and little penetration of the general public’s consciousness, yet, like The Velvet Underground or The Thirteenth Floor Elevators they are shrouded in mystery and the reputation of being one of the great bands that people “in the know” know about. The truth is somewhat more complex than that. King Crimson was not and are still not a flash in the pan or part of some arcane drug-related movement. More similar to Frank Zappa, they have had a long, prolific career that has been marked by supreme musicianship and the unwavering professional seriousness of leader Robert Fripp. Fripp is one of the great auteur nuts of rock music. He is the only member who has been in every iteration of King Crimson and it has been his precision, psych, buzzsaw guitar playing and angular, heady compositional style that have been their consistent features. For the 40th anniversary of this important band, Fripp has enlisted Porcupine Tree mainman Steve Wilson and embarked upon creating the definitive versions of his landmark albums. Appropriately enough they have begun with the first, and most beloved Crimson album In The Court Of The Crimson King from 1969 and their 1974 masterpiece Red which marked the end of the first major era of King Crimson.

Aside from having one of the most recognizable and iconic album covers in rock history Court is possibly the quintessential “Art-Rock” statement. Jazzy, experimental and often startlingly noisy it is miles ahead of its time and sounds willfully avant by even today’s standards. It hearkens back to a time when musicians were trying to stretch the limits of popular music to include all their interests and emotions and move away from formulaic love songs. Unlike so many bands, King Crimson succeeded in creating a one-of-a-kind work of art that is as satisfying musically and conceptually now as it was then.

Red represents a much different King Crimson and a much different musical approach. The original Crimson line-up with Greg Lake, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles had been replaced by extraordinary drummer Bill Bruford and prog-rock legend to be John Wetton on bass and vocals and the album shines with intricate songwriting and powerful musical arrangements that bring together the best of jazz and rock. This is what FM radio was all about in the early 70’s and songs like “Fallen Angel,” “One More Red Nightmare” and “Starless” are the kind of onanistic science fiction fodder that completely lit my imagination at 15.

The real point of this review however, is not how great these two albums are, but how amazing these new editions of the albums sound. Each one is housed in a slipcase that holds a CD with the original album remixed in a definitive fashion and then a handful of bonus tracks. The second disc is a DVD that contains multiple versions of each album in all kinds of souped up audio quality with surround versions and alternate takes galore. They also each contain pieces of video that show the band at the appropriate time. I have been following the progress of sound and especially 5.1 and high-fidelity versions and I must proclaim these releases the ultimate in audiophile satisfaction. The clarity and detail is breathtaking and to hear the delicacy of “I Talk To The Wind” or the crushing finale of “Fallen Angel” in full surround, ear-bleeding mode was pretty damn exciting. In direct opposition to the movement toward more and more condensed music and storage capability trumping sound quality, these releases stick a finger in the face of the iPod and say “you wanna hear what music can really sound like?”

For those who are completely mad there is the awe-inspiring import version of In The Court Of The Crimson King which stretches the package to 5 CDs and a DVD and adds rare promo versions, alternates, different mixes of the album and two live shows from 1969. It might seem like overkill, but I can’t say I was less than riveted the entire time I listened to it. It is one of the most original and haunting albums in rock history and actually deserves this kind of treatment.
Paul Epstein

Neil Young - Dreamin’ Man Live ‘92

A couple of years ago when Neil played at the Wells Fargo Theatre downtown I got to go back stage and talk to him for a minute. We talked about the archive series and I asked him what else they were going to do. He said “next is ‘Over The Rainbow.’” I asked him if he meant the Rainbow Theatre in London on the Tonight’s The Night tour. He smiled and said yes. That tour is largely unheard in the public, and in collecting circles it is the most sought after stuff of all – kind of a holy grail search for the heart of Neil. On that tour he regularly performed drunk and went on long rambling raps in the middle of the song “Tonight’s The Night.” Some versions would last 45 minutes and some nights he would play the song three times in the same set. There are really no high quality versions of these shows out there so I was quite excited for the prospect. Then the next release to come out was The Canterbury House and it was so good that I forgot about the Rainbow release. Then “Dreamin’ Man” got announced and I thought; “what happened to the Rainbow? So, I went into this release with a somewhat bad attitude. When I got a copy I put it on and was almost immediately transported. It is one of those things that Neil and only a few other performers I have seen can do; completely engross the audience as a solo act. Very hard to do. From the first note of this CD it is clear Neil is playing these songs (the entire Harvest Moon album before it was out) with an uncommon urgency. He is in beautiful voice and his solid, accompaniment is wondrous in its simplicity and natural perfection. He is what every dorm-room wannabe wants ta be. Like the earlier Massey Hall release the effect is transcendent. The concert ends (Dreamin’ Man is actually taken from a series of concerts) and you realize you have shared an intimate experience, not just listened to a record. The material stands up pretty well too. Harvest Moon is sort of the sequel to the classic Harvest and it showcases the loving, homebody Neil as opposed to the tortured rock warrior. His love songs resonate in the heart as profoundly as his electric guitar playing stings in the ears. This is another bullseye for the archive series.

Paul Epstein

Thursday, December 10, 2009

One Hundred Eleven and Counting

OK, so by now you know that Deutsche Grammophon is 111 years old. That's pretty old, even for a record company. And to help celebrate, the fine folks over at DG have put together a wee 6-CD collection of highlights and gems from the last century.

The earliest recording on this lovely set is a Meyerbeer aria sung by the opera titan Enrico Caruso in 1907. That's a little like having a box set called “45 years of the Rolling Stones” and not including anything until Sticky Fingers, isn't it? Or perhaps I'm the only person who wants to hear tragically Lo-Fi 19th century opera recordings. Or perhaps that's the earliest thing they could find. Still, that's a minor gripe as this set is pretty impressive by any standards.

The tracks are offered up here alphabetically, by performer - from Abbado to Zimerman, taking in legends like Bohm, Domingo, Furtwangler, Heifetz, Karajan, Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Segovia along the way. Because of this there is no flow or theme on the discs but rather a continuously shifting mood that never gets boring.

I recognized much of the music on this set but there were nice surprises also - the wonderful “Boogie Woogie Etude” by Morton Gould sounds exactly like the title, and Golijov's "Ayre," sung by Dawn Upshaw (with the the Andalucian Dogs!) is fabulous too. The fact that such an array of composers is represented here (not just Bach and Beethoven) turns this collection into a treasure trove of discoveries. My only regret is that the pioneering work of Kagel, Stockhausen, Nono and Maderna (which DG thankfully supported in the 60s and 70s) is only marginally represented here. Perhaps we'll get an Avant-garde box set next year, guys?

The appeal of DG goes beyond music. Like the wildly different labels Blue Note and 4AD, the presentation and feel of the records was part of the package. DG is a design icon with an instantly recognizable brand and aesthetic; perhaps the first label to achieve that. So, good on ya, chaps! Thanks for the music and here's to another 111.

- Ben Sumner

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Cranberries Gothic Theatre 12.1.2009

The Cranberries
Gothic Theatre

For the first time in 7 years, the original members of the Cranberries have reunited, and stopped by the Gothic to play an amazing set this last Tuesday.

When the night started out, I honestly didn't know what to expect. The crowd that showed up was a mix of contrasting archetypes. For the most part, it was a bunch of people who don't get out very often, and were obviously used to assigned seating at the Pepsi Center. Once we found a place to stand and enjoy the show, a lady behind us (who looked like a miniature Enya with bright red lipstick), who was leaning on the rail when we got there, got up and passively nudged us with her purse. After several ignored nudges, she finally asked us if we'd planned on staying there all night, because now she couldn't see. We offered to switch her places, as we were taller, but she acted as if she were afraid of us and declined our offer. This is, for the most part, the kind of people that were in the crowd. The same people that made flashes of cameras and iPhones light the house up like wildfire! It was as if no one understood their devices well enough to turn off the flash for a performance. It was ridiculous enough to get some people histerically laughing, including myself. However, there were some livelier, happier people sprinkled among us, and most everyone warmed up towards the end of the night anyway. Even the group of 40-something year-old wallflowers that decided to stand around unmoving the whole night, blocking the crowd with their huge hair seemed to lighten up by the time the Cranberries were in the middle of their set.

Griffin House was the opener. I honestly have nothing slightly positive to say about this guy. I wish I had shown up later and missed this guys performance, which was a cheesey, obvious and overstated attempt at a niche market to make the white man's burden fade away by lyrically stating that no one is really white. He seems a lot like a marketer with a guitar, singing something that is more similar to contrived Hollywood Country, then something that should be before a Cranberries performance. I'm admittedly no music expert, and I realize he respectably has fans, but it's my personal opinion that Griffin House seems less of an artist and more of a trust-funder with a marketing degree and a guitar.

Now on to the good part of the show; the whole reason we were all there; the Cranberries. What an amazing performance! Their sound was full of energy and the same old dark melodic pop with a Celtic twist. Dolores O'Riordan's vocals were just as good, if not better live than recorded. The 38 year-old mother of two bounced and danced on stage with energy that, at times, put the crowd to shame. While she kept most of her talking to a minimum, she modestly still announced the title to every song before performing it, as if she needed to. Her stage presence was so positive and on key that it seemed to make the whole place change for the better. Noel & Mike Hogan (Guitar & Bass) and Fergal Lawler (Drums) were, as to be expected, just as awesome. Fergal, Noel and Mike drew out great ending renditions to “Dreaming my Dreams” and “I Still Do.” They catered to the crowd well and performed a ton of their classics like “Free to Decide,” “Linger,” and, of course, “Zombie.” Seeing these guys perform all of their hits live for the first time is comparable to having fresh Cranberry juice for the first time, instead of from concentrate. While they have been around for almost 19 years, the Cranberries have not gone bad. They remain fresh, full of energy, and maintain their amazing, inspiring sound. They are set to release an album of live recordings in 2010, and I can't wait to get more of what I got from them at the Gothic that night!

-Chris Berstler

Friday, December 4, 2009

Grateful Dead - Road Trips Vol. 3 No. 1 12-28-79

This is the second full show from this run of New Year's shows to be officially released. Not quite the powerhouse that the other show is, this one still has many highlights to recommend it. Starting with a completely soaring “Sugaree” the band is clearly psyched. Other first set highlights include a hypnotic “Row Jimmy” and a beautiful version of the rare “High Time.” The fireworks really start in the second set where a “Terrapin” for the ages gives way to a “Playin’ In The Band” for the ages - spacey and exploratory, they don’t rush it at all. The bonus disc also has a remarkable sequence of songs with “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire On The Mountain” slipping seductively into a letter perfect “Let It Grow.” This period of The Dead is characterized by the high-energy addition of keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland and the large amounts of time the band was putting into rehearsing with him. They play with a speedy precision that they would never recapture again. In particular, the three guitarists are playing with chattering intensity and seemed more tuned into each other than at any time since the late 60’s. It is not long, languorous jams but bright, to the point virtuosity that drives this show - exhilarating.

Paul Epstein