Thursday, December 31, 2015

Big Shot Rocks & Rolls At Infinity Hall

Big Shot, the Billy Joel tribute band, visited CT this past weekend for two shows at Infinity Hall, one at the Norfolk location on Saturday, Dec. 26 and another at the Hartford venue on Sunday, Dec. 27. I was lucky enough to attend the Sunday night performance, and it was an amazing night. Led by Mike DelGuidice, who’s currently a member of The Piano Man’s touring band, the group rocked & rolled its way through an amazing set featuring fan favorites, album cuts and a couple of non Billy Joel surprises. Mike opened the show solo with a couple of his original songs, including the beautiful ballad “Days of Old.” Then he brought the full band out, who helped kick off the main event with an energetic version of “Angry Young Man.” What followed was a rollicking night of rock & roll, which included the expected classics such as “Piano Man,” and “Movin’ Out,” as well as deeper cuts like “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” and “Until the Night.” And of course, there were many more hits, like “Only The Good Die Young” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.”

But this wonderful night was not just about Billy Joel songs; the band also treated us to knockout versions of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love" and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” These talented gentlemen treated the audience to a marvelous show filled with top notch playing & they enjoyed this show as much as the audience did. The band really captures the spirit of Billy Joel’s music. Mike’s vocals & keyboards are amazing & the rest of the group (featuring members of Billy’s band) are top notch; they’re all extraordinary musicians, and their love of this music comes through in every note. Depending on the night you see the group, there are some different players who sit in, but they’re all fantastic. If you have a chance to see Big Shot, don’t hesitate. Here’s a link to a promotional video for the band featuring some performance clips:

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Force is With J.J. Abrams

Writer-Director J.J. Abrams has previously managed to resuscitate a couple of franchises that were stuck in second gear: he did it with Mission: Impossible: III in 2006, and helped re-boot the Star Trek universe in 2009 with Star Trek, starring Chris Pine. Now, he tackles the world of George Lucas’ much-loved Star Wars saga. Can he do it again? The answer is yes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a thrilling adventure that pays homage to its roots, while helping move the story forward. This will be a largely spoiler-free review, but if you don’t want to know some basic details about the film’s plot, read no further. Set thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the movie introduces some new characters to the Star Wars universe, including hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who’s sent on an important mission to the desert world of Jakku. He needs to locate a portion of a map that contains information vital to the resistance.

We also meet Rey, a scavenger who lives on Jakku, and Finn, a stormtrooper who deserts his post, and crosses paths with both Poe and Rey. It’s Rey who will become an important focal point of the film as the story progresses. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Empire (now known as the First Order) is marshaling its forces, and preparing to wipe out the resistance once & for all. A new Dark Lord, Kylo Ren, is leading the offensive, and is seeking the same information as Poe. As the story moves forward, we meet some old friends from the original trilogy, and there are the usual assortment of space battles, narrow escapes and (of course) light saber battles. The great thing about the film is that it looks and feels like a Star Wars movie. The almost deadly slow pace and lack of humor evident in the much maligned prequel films is not in evidence here. Abrams is a fan, and he knows this saga inside out. Much as he did in his Mission: Impossible & Star Trek films, as well as the Spielberg-influenced Super 8, he truly delivers the goods.

There’s a Mos Eisley Cantina’s worth of visual (and dialogue) references to the original trilogy, which will also please fans. One of Abrams’ collaborators on the script is no stranger to the world of Star Wars: it’s Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back & Return of The Jedi. There are times the movie feels like a “greatest hits” of Star Wars lore, but in most cases that’s a strength and not a detriment. You will need to have some familiarity with the original films to fully enjoy this one. It’s a fast-paced, action-filled story, and while there may be some minor weaknesses in the story, the Star Wars we know & love is back. The story sets up some intriguing elements for the next chapter in the series, set to be released in 2017. While The Force Awakens is part of its own trilogy, Disney (who now owns the rights to the saga) will also be producing several spin-off films, including Rogue One, due this December.

The new actors introduced in the film all give enjoyable performances, but special kudos to Daisy Ridley as Rey & John Boyega as Finn, who do a great job. It's nice to see a female character be given a central role in such a large scale franchise film. The effects are fantastic, of course, and the one & only John Williams provides the movie’s score. And it's no spoiler to say it's fantastic to see the original cast members who return to reprise their roles; you get a wonderful nostalgic feeling as soon as they appear on screen. If you’re a fan of the classic films, this is a great Christmas present from J.J. Abrams and his cast & crew. I saw the film in 2D, so I can’t speak for the quality of the 3D, but it looked just fine in 2D format. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in theatres. Here’s a link to the film's trailer: And remember, “It's true.....all of it."

1/2/16: Review Update: I went to see the film a second time yesterday, and it holds up very well on a repeat viewing. In fact, I enjoyed it a bit more without the weight of all the anticipation & expectation of seeing it for the first time. This time I viewed it in 3D, and while it's not essential to view the movie in that format, it did add some fun to the experience. Still, seeing it in 2D will be perfectly fine, if you just want to experience the film on the big screen. This is an exciting, enjoyable space adventure with action, humor & heart that stays true to the spirit of what George Lucas started back in 1977. I look forward to seeing where the story takes us as the saga continues.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Squeeze's Difford & Tilbrook Bring Their "At Odds Couple" Tour To Ridgefield

Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook have been delighting fans with their wry lyrics & hook-laden songs since the late 1970s, as the driving forces behind Squeeze, and as solo performers. The artists stopped by The Ridgefield Playhouse on December 11 as part of their “At Odds Couple” acoustic tour. The show featured Squeeze favorites such as “Black Coffee In Bed” and “Slap & Tickle” as well as solo material like Difford’s “Wrecked” and Tilbrook’s “Still.” They also performed material from the band’s new album, Cradle To The Grave. Both men left the stage at various points during the show to allow the other to take the spotlight. There were also a few stories about their careers when the duo took time to answer audience questions in two brief question & answer segments. It helped give the evening a unique spin on the "Unplugged" setting.

Tilbrook’s guitar work was excellent; he truly tore it up with some stinging solos. Difford’s quiet sense of humor was evident throughout the evening, especially on his introductions to the witty solo tunes “Fat As A Fiddle” and “Cowboys Are My Weakness.” The new music from Cradle To The Grave, especially the title cut, sounded fantastic, and was well received. But the songs that got the biggest responses of the night were the Squeeze classics, such as the energetic “Annie Get Your Gun,” the soul-influenced “Tempted” and one of my personal favorites “Up The Junction.” They’ve lost none of their power over the years, and it’s easy to see why Difford & Tilbrook were often compared to Lennon & McCartney at the height of their fame.

The two-set show was followed by an amazing three-song encore consisting of “Another Nail From My Heart," "If I Didn’t Love You" & "Goodbye Girl.” This terrific twosome obviously still enjoy performing together, and playing off of each other as well. A nice bonus at concert’s end was that you could immediately purchase a CD copy of the night’s performance, burned while you waited, and then the guys came out to sign the discs and meet briefly with fans. It was a fabulous evening of great music. Difford & Tilbrook are currently wrapping up the “At Odds Couple” tour, but promised during the show that plans are afoot for Squeeze to do a full band tour sometime next year. Check them out if you get the chance. Here’s a link to a performance (audience participation included) of “Goodbye Girl” from an earlier concert:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tributes To The Hollies & The Left Banke

Tribute Albums are a tricky enterprise. While there have been a plethora of them released since the 1980s, only a small number end up being essential listening for loyal fans, who are often divided over the true worth of such discs. Is the album a strong selection of the saluted artist’s best work, a collection of lesser-known tracks, or a combination of both? Will the disc appeal to the casual listener as well as the devoted fan? It’s also a tough prospect for the artists who participate: do you put forth a faithful cover of the original song, or take the tune in an entirely different direction? Indeed, that can be the tightrope you walk when doing any cover version. I’ve lauded a bunch of covers in some of my playlist features for this blog in the past, but this week I’d like to take note of a couple of tribute discs that are worth tracking down.

Sing Hollies In Reverse (1995) – The Hollies are often underrated in discussions of the best bands from The British Invasion era, but their superb harmonies & sparkling guitars, featured on a number of classic pop/rock singles like “Bus Stop,” and "Look Through Any Window" are fondly remembered by music aficionados to this day. The band also gave us our first look at Graham Nash, later to form a super-group with David Crosby, Stephen Stills & Neil Young. Sing Hollies in Reverse features twenty-one Hollies songs covered by a cadre of power pop groups, who are unabashed fans of the band. Some of the standout tracks include Tommy Keene’s version of “Carrie Anne,” The Wondermints wonderful romp through “You Need Love,” and The Posies perfect take on one of my favorite Hollies tunes “King Midas In Reverse,” which kicks off the disc.

There are some artists who put their own stamp on the songs, including Jon Brion’s psychedelic run-through of “Sorry Suzanne,” E’s interesting take on “Jennifer Ecles,” and the Flamingoes version of “Water on The Brain” is a must listen. You’ll also get to hear The Continental Drifters (featuring ex-Cowsills member Susan Cowsill) pour their hearts (and beautiful harmonies) into “I Can’t Let Go” and Material Issue do their best British Invasion impression on “Bus Stop,” while the Shakin’ Apostles rock their way through “Dear Eloise.” Sing Hollies In Reverse is currently out of print, but used copies are pretty easy to find online. If you’re a Hollies devotee, or a fan of any of the groups featured on the album, you’ll enjoy it.

Shadows Breaking Over Our Heads: A Tribute To The Left Banke (1999) - You probably know about The Left Banke based on their two classic 1960s singles “Pretty Ballerina” and the oft-covered “Walk Away Renee” but the short-lived group really helped define the “baroque pop” genre explored by bands like The Zombies and Love, as well groups like The Beatles, The Beach Boys & The Rolling Stones. While their original output only included two albums, they left a lasting impression on a number of fellow musicians, and rock & roll fans. This album features 22 tracks, and there’s not a bad one in the bunch. Some of the most enjoyable entries include Frank Bango’s pop-tinged “Goodbye Holly,” Sun Sawed in 1/2’s effervescent “And Suddenly,” and Starbelly’s rocking version of “Myrah.” And I love The Phenomenal Cats fantastic reading of “I’ve Got Something On My Mind,” one of the best songs in the The Left Banke catalog.

But there are a couple of tracks that really hit it out of the park, including ex-Jellyfish member Jason Falkner’s beautiful, yearning rendition of “Pretty Ballerina” and The Jigsaw Scene’s late period Beatles inspired take on “Desiree,” while The Birdwatchers channel their inner Brian Wilson on “My Friend Today.” Blue Cartoon contributes a strong cover of  “Give The Man A Hand,” and Ken Stringfellow provides an echo-tinged interpretation of "She May Call You Up Tonight." As with The Hollies tribute, having power pop & indie bands take on these songs is an inspired idea that really pays off. Like Sing Hollies in Reverse, this disc is out of print, but readily available used, at various online outlets. Repeated exposure to Shadows Breaking Over Our Heads: A Tribute To The Left Banke just might make you a Left Banke fan, even if you’re only mildly familiar with their work. Track lists for both discs are below.

Sing Hollies In Reverse
1. The Posies – King Midas In Reverse
2. Tommy Keene – Carrie Anne
3. The Loud Family – Look Through Any Window

4. Steve Wynn & Eric Ambel – The Air That I Breathe

5. Mitch Eeaster – Pay You Back With Interest

6. Cub – You Know He Did

7. Kristian Hoffman – I’m Alive

8. Flamingoes – Water On The Brain

9. E – Jennifer Eccles

10. The Jigsaw Seen – On A Carousel

11. John Easdale – Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress

12. Bill Lloyd – Step Inside

13. Loser’s Lounge – After The Fox

14. The Wondermints – You Need Love

15. The Sneetches– So Lonely

16. The Continental Drifters – I Can’t Let Go

17. Carla Olson – Touch

18. Andrew – Heading For A Fall

19. Material Issue – Bus Stop

20. Shakin‘ Apostles – Dear Eloise

21. Jon Brion – Sorry Suzanne

Shadows Breaking Over Our Heads: A Tribute To The Left Banke
1.   Desiree - The Jigsaw Seen
2.   Let Go Of You Girl - Admiral
3.   Goodbye Holly - Frank Bango
4.   Pretty Ballerina - Jason Falkner
5.   I Haven't Got The Nerve - Shane Faubert
6.   Myrah - Starbelly
7.   And Suddenly - The Sun Sawed In 1/2
8.   Shadows Breaking Over My Head - Blue Cartoon
9.   Give The Man A Hand - The Andersons

10. My Friend Today - The Birdwatchers
11.  Evening Gown - Minster Hill
12.  Sing Little Bird Sing - Flamingo
13.  Lazy Day - The Grip Weeds
14. Nice To See You - Mark Johnson
15. Walk Away Renee - Angie Heaton
16. She May Call You Up Tonight - Ken Stringfellow
17. I've Got Something On My Mind - The Phenomenal Cats
18. Dark Is The Bark - Jeremy
19. Barterers And Their Wives - The Idea
20. There's Gonna Be A Storm - The Christines
21. Run Jenny Run - Ed James
22. Brother Louie - Jim Basnight