Friday, April 29, 2016

"Vinyl" Spins A Wild Tale of 70s Rock

The recently completed first season of HBO’s Vinyl, was a mix of good performances, solid music and an intriguing, though flawed look at the rock & roll world of the 1970s. The show was created by Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Rich Cohen, and Terence (Boardwalk Empire) Winter, so it had the makings of being a powerful look at how the music business was changing during that tumultuous decade. The series tells the story of American Century, a New York-based record label owned by Richie Finestra, played with his usual intensity by Bobby Cannavale. Along with the rest of his staff, including his friends Zak Yankovich (Ray Romano) and Julian “Julie” Silver (Max Casella) the head of A&R, Richie tries to find the great band as rock, soul, disco and punk all collide in a fast-changing musical landscape. Richie is continually abusing drugs & alcohol, spurred on by the financial troubles of the record company, and his tumultuous relationship with his wife Devon, played by Olivia Wilde. 

The pilot, directed by Scorsese, was a visually striking episode that found Richie in the midst of a cocaine binge, as he attended a concert by the real life band the New York Dolls, which literally brings the house down. That’s one of the most clever conceits of the series: while Richie & the main characters are fictional, they live & work in the “real” rock & roll world of the era, and rub elbows with Alice Cooper, Robert Plant & Elvis (portrayed by actors, of course) which gives the show a unique feel. Many of the show’s scenes are interspersed with performers standing in for well-known artists & lip-syncing songs of the time period. The selections are well chosen & often inspired, but some of the sequences work better than others.

Richie’s search for the next big thing brings him into contact with a punk band called the Nasty Bits, who are brought to his attention by an ambitious A&R assistant, Jamie Vine, played by Juno Temple. The group’s lead singer is portrayed by Chris Jagger, who’s Mick’s son, and he does a very nice job in the role. As Richie & his crew try to shape the group into rock stars, we see flashbacks to the label’s (and Richie's) past, and how the company came to be. There’s a lot of heartbreak, bad decisions, and deals with the mob. Some of those choices come back to haunt Richie. As his marriage, his friendships & his label begin to disintegrate, will he find redemption?

The show looks great & the music is fantastic, but the subsequent episodes, while they’ve all had their moments, didn’t quite live up to the promise of the pilot. There's no doubt Richie is an interesting character, but he’s essentially unlikable, despite Cannavale’s charisma & solid (though often wildly over the top) performance. We just don’t care about him enough to root for him, especially when he keeps making such terrible choices, and mistreating those closest to him. However, one of the show’s pleasant surprises is Ray Romano’s multi-layered, nicely turned portrayal of Zac, whose friendship with Richie is tested to its limits. And despite the fact that the women in the cast have to work with some clichéd, underwritten material, Temple as Jamie Vine, Wilde as Devon, and Annie Parisse as Andrea Zito, an executive who Richie brings in to help stabilize his sinking ship, all have some excellent moments.

The series is watchable & often enjoyable, but the inconsistent writing, and somewhat predictable storylines (including a superflous murder subplot) often drag the show down. Although the music is excellent, Vinyl sometimes plays fast & loose with the facts of the period’s history. Interestingly enough, co-creator and show runner Terence Winter left the show at the end of the season, hinting at some behind the scenes troubles. The series has been renewed for a second year, so hopefully Season 2 will be more consistent. The show does have enough effective moments to make it worth a look for rock fans, but it could have been a classic. Considering the talent involved, it falls a bit short of that mark. Let’s hope Vinyl’s second spin lives up to its promise. Here’s a link to a trailer for the series:

Review update on 6/23/16: HBO has announced they are canceling Vinyl and will not be producing a second season of the series after all. It looks like we'll never know what might have occurred for Richie & the rest of the characters, so chalk this one up to a missed opportunity.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

In Memory of Prince: A Review From 2013

We've had a lot of losses in the entertainment world recently, but I have to say this one hit me pretty hard. One of my personal favorites, Prince was a supremely talented artist, writer & producer, a consummate musician, and a superb guitarist. Few artists deserve the mantle of icon, but he truly earned them during his amazing career. In memory of this talented artist, here's a re-post of a review I wrote after seeing him back in 2013. RIP, Prince. Thanks for the music:

For the final show of his 3-night weekend residency at Mohegan Sun on December 29, Prince & some special guests brought the audience some soul, funk & old school R&B. After keeping the audience waiting almost an hour past the scheduled start time of 8pm, opening act Janelle Monae was wheeled out onto an asylum-like mini stage. She busted out of her strait-jacket to wow the crowd with a fantastic performance featuring songs from her recent release The Electric Lady. The early part of her set even included a cameo by Prince on the song “Givin’ Em What They Love,” where he said to the ecstatic crowd “I command you all to dance.” Monae powered through an energetic hour long set that included two excellent cover tunes: a wonderful version of The Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back” and (in a ballsy move): a faithful take on Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” Monae is a talented singer whose look & sound channeled equal parts Michael Jackson, David Bowie, James Brown and a dash of 80s funk.

After Ms. Monae's set concluded, the audience expected our headliner to arrive. Instead, the lights went down and we heard a voice shouting, “My name is Doug E. Fresh and the party starts now!” The rapper played DJ & dance party host, spinning a generous helping of old school soul & rap classics, including Rappers DelightSeptemberThe Humpty DanceBrick House and more. Doug got the crowd dancing, cheering, laughing and singing along. Just when things were at a fever pitch, it was time for the main event: The Purple One himself.

Prince took the stage, proclaiming, “My name is Prince. I am not a cheap date. I am high maintenance” and for the next two hours we were treated to a phenomenal show mixing old & new material. Songs performed included “Let’s Work, Nothing Compares 2 U, 1999" and a rocked out, Led Zeppelin infused version of “Let’s Go Crazy.” The combined raw power, drive and instrumental & vocal artistry of the backing bands 3rd Eye Girl and New Power Generation was nothing short of amazing. In fact, every song was a musical highlight, as His Purple Majesty kept everyone enraptured with stunning readings of tunes such as a beautiful cover of The Soul Children’s “The Sweeter She Is” and a fantastic version of his own “U Got The Look.” He was in top form, and this show was a celebration of Prince's music & his power to thrill & entertain an audience. And by the way, the man can absolutely shred on guitar, as he proved on a spectacular version of "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)."

You couldn’t help but dance, scream & shout all night long at this electric, supercharged concert. There were a total of 3 encores, including the classic “Purple Rain.” The final song of the night, “Plectrum Electrum,” was performed after the house lights had already come up & the audience was filing out of the venue! This sent many people rushing back inside to hear one more song from Prince. He's an iconic, multi-talented artist, and when he declared “This is MY house now,” no one at Mohegan Sun Arena disagreed.

This was one of the most memorable shows I've ever seen. Prince was a multi-talented, innovative, one of a kind artist. I'm saddened by his loss, not only for his family & friends, but for myself & the rest of his fans who'll never get to see him perform live again, or release any new music to dazzle us. Heaven just got a little more purple and a LOT more funky.

Prince's Set List from 12/29/13:
Big City
Nothing Compares To U
Let’s Work
U Got The Look
The Sweeter She Is
Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)
Let’s Go Crazy
When Doves Cry
Nasty Girl
Sign O’ The Times
Forever In My Life
Pop Life

Encore 1:
Purple Rain

Encore 2:
Take Me With U
Raspberry Beret
Cool (cover of The Time song, medley with Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough & other tunes) 
  – with special guest Doug E. Fresh

Encore 3:
Plectrum Electrum (performed after the house lights went up)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Blog Flashback: A 1980s Tribute "Reigns"

To wrap up our 5th Anniversary "looks back" here's the most viewed post in the blog's history, a 2014 review of the fantastic CD, Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion.

One of the best records I heard in 2013 was executive producer Andrew Curry’s Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute to Lite Rock. A group of indie rock & pop artists like Mike Viola & Lisa Mychols covered mid 70s-early 80s AM radio staples like “Steal Away” & “Don’t Give Up On Us.” It’s a really fun disc – and I still listen to it frequently. Well now Mr. Curry & some friends have returned with an equally enjoyable follow-up, Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion. This time out, another group of indie artists tackle songs from the British bands who exploded onto our TV screens during the years when MTV ruled the airwaves. Come on, you remember the Modern Rock/New Wave era, don’t you? Songs like The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” whose videos played in heavy rotation when MTV still played music? Well, those songs are on this excellent tribute album, along with a batch of other tunes from the glory days of music video.

The styles range from faithful covers like David Mead’s rendering of Duran Duran’s “Save A Prayer” and Linus of Hollywood’s version of Paul Young’s “Everytime You Go Away” to splendid re-imaginings such as Taylor Locke’s rockabilly rave on “Dancing With Myself” which adds Beach Boys style harmonies to the Billy Idol hit, and Graham Alexander’s clever gender switch reading of Tracey Ullman’s 
“They Don’t Know,” a song written by the late Kirsty MacColl. Other highlights include Eytan Mirsky & Alyson Greenfields' country-esque cover of the Howard Jones track “No One Is to Blame,” People On Vacation rocking out on Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” and Cliff Hillis’ gorgeous interpretation of Nik Kershaw’s “Wouldn’t It Be Good.” (Love those horns, mate!) There’s also Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne doing Dream Academy's “Life In A Northern Town,” as well as Minky Starshine with Spandau Ballet’s “True.” And did you know that Soft Cell's hit "Tainted Love" was itself a cover of a 1960s tune by soul singer Gloria Jones? On this album, Eric Barao gets that 80s vibe just right on his version of the song.

Another positive aspect of this marvelous album is the song selection: There are well known hits like rocker Bleu powering up on Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” alongside somewhat lesser known (in the US) numbers like the Yaz song “Only You,” beautifully covered by The Wellingtons, and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies with a masterful rendition of The Blow Monkeys tune “Digging Your Scene.” Kudos to Curry for gathering together another eclectic group of artists, including Freedy Johnston, who offers a jazzy re-do of the Naked Eyes song “Promise, Promises,” Rachel Yamagata, who does an intense, emotional take on Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” and Tracy Bonham who gives a unique slant to the Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” There are also some returning artists from the Drink A Toast To Innocence project, including Kelly Jones, who does a delicate, lovely remake of Level 42’s “Something About You” and the aforementioned Cliff Hillis, Mike Viola, Bleu and Linus of Hollywood. I haven't touched on every track on the album, but they are all amazing.

Whether it’s a dead-on accurate cover or awe-inspiring re-imagining, all the songs here are fantastic, and will take you back to those pre-internet days when we were glued to our TV sets watching all the videos on MTV. Like its predecessor, this disc is going to ignite memories, make you smile, and get you singing along & probably even dancing around the room. Andrew Curry & his team are to be commended for hitting another one out of the park. Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion is an awesome record, and one of the best albums of 2014. This isn’t some low rent, hastily thrown together collection or shoddy project. Curry & these artists really care about this music, and it shows; they’re fans, just like we are, and they give these songs the respect they deserve. Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion will be available soon; it was originally a Kickstarter funded project, so backers have already begun to receive their music, and an official release should be coming in the near future.

Here’s a link to an old school style ad/trailer for this smashing collection: There’s also a Facebook page you can check out for more info on the album: The song list is below, not including a couple of bonus tracks that were Kickstarter only exclusives. I also recommend listening to these talented artists’ own music – they’re all well worth checking out. And if you're interested in my review of Andrew Curry's previous project, Drink a Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock, that article can be found here:

Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion
Track Listing
Disc One
1. Life In A Northern Town - Chris Collingwood
2. Goody Two Shoes - Jim Boggia & Pete Donnelly
3. Everybody Wants To Rule The World - Mike Viola
4. Kids In America - Big-Box Store
5. West End Girls - Secret Friend
6. True - Minky Starshine
7. Cruel Summer - People On Vacation
8. Everytime You Go Away - Linus Of Hollywood
9. Something About You - Kelly Jones
10. Only You - The Wellingtons
11. Tenderness - TeamMate
12. Don't You Want Me - Chris Price
13. Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) - Tracy Bonham

Disc Two
1. Wouldn't It Be Good - Cliff Hillis
2. Tainted Love - Eric Barao
3. Promises, Promises - Freedy Johnston
4. Do You Really Want To Hurt Me - Rachael Yamagata
5. Save A Prayer - David Mead
6. Relax - Mike Doughty
7. Dancing With Myself - Taylor Locke
8. Digging Your Scene - Ken Stringfellow
9. Freedom - The Davenports
10. They Don't Know - Graham Alexander
11. No One Is To Blame - Eytan Mirsky & Alyson Greenfield
12. Our House - The Corner Laughers
13. Life's What You Make It - The Nines
14. Don't You (Forget About Me) - Bleu

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Early Elton Travels Back to 11-17-70

Early Elton, the band dedicated to performing authentic live versions of Elton John’s music from 1970-72, with a special focus on his trio tours with Nigel Olsson & Dee Murray, returned once again to the Fairfield Theatre Company on Friday night. I’ve written about these talented musicians several times before, and at this point, I’m running out of superlatives to describe how awesome they are. As always, it was a fabulous night of music. The first set was a fantastic group of favorites, including “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and “Rocket Man.” As always, there was also a generous helping of tracks from Tumbleweed Connection, including “Country Comfort” and “Where To Now, St. Peter?” The guys also debuted an excellent version of “Razorface” from Madman Across the Water, which was one of the highlights of the night. Then again, the whole show was a highlight.

The second set was a marvelous performance of the live album, 11-17-70, in its entirety, climaxing with the classic “Burn Down The Mission” medley. As always, Jeff Kazee on piano & vocals, John Conte on bass & vocals & Rich Pagano on drums & vocals were fantastic, and provided us with a magnificent night of rock & roll. They were tight & in sync, and their solid chemistry and obvious enthusiasm for this wonderful music is infectious. The FTC is an annual stop on their tours, and I’ve been privileged enough to see this amazing band for the last four years. Not only are they excellent performers, but they’re also genuinely nice guys. If you have a chance to see them, don’t hesitate. It’s a great way to celebrate Elton’s music, and see it performed by these supremely gifted musicians. They truly keep this essential music vibrant & alive with their passionate performances. Here’s a link to their webpage:

Early Elton at Fairfield Theatre Company - photos by John V