Saturday, April 09, 2016

Renaissance - Live at The Union Chapel 2015, Now Available on DVD and Audio Download, "Ashes" Still Hot Four Decades On

Photo courtesy of Renaissance

Forty years ago, I was privileged to meet the members of Renaissance when they visited the studios of WRHY-Starview for an interview prior to their show that night at Franklin & Marshall College. They have probably long forgotten that media stop, among the many they must have made back then, but their trip up the mountain to our station building in central Pennsylvania is indelibly etched in my mind. As the evening DJ it was my pleasure to sit in and take part in that interview.

Over the years, Renaissance has weathered many changes; changes in audience (welcome next generation), the record industry (hello Kickstarter), and changes in personnel (rest in peace Michael Dunford). Over the last decade, Annie Haslam (with keyboardist Rave Tesar) reassembled Renaissance with original member Michael Dunford on guitar. Together they did a successful tour that included complete performances of two of their most beloved albums, producing a double live CD and DVD recorded at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA. They also went into the studio and recorded an album of all new original compositions, Grandine il Vento. Following Dunford's sudden death, they decided to carry on and added Ryche Chlanda on guitar and vocals.

I have seen them many times over the years and they have always been nothing short of brilliant. Annie Haslam is an amazing singer. Her voice has a five octave range and a true and clear tone. Incredibly, her voice actually seems to get stronger and stronger during the course of a performance.

Renaissance has just released a new album, Live at The Union Chapel, recorded last year in London. The price for this package at the Renaissance website is a steal; $14 buys you the DVD which includes a digital download of the complete 100 minute concert. Audio and video quality is superb, and the setlist will surely please any Renaissance fan. It even includes material from that newest studio album.

Beyond the compositions, which embody the best aspects of progressive rock from the seventies, the soul of Renaissance is the unique voice of Annie Haslam combined with the keyboard artistry (mostly piano) of Jon Tout (then) and Rave Tesar (now). The only video released so far from this DVD is their opening track, "Prologue". Watch and listen as this performance reminds you of everything that you ever loved about this band. The wordless vocal is beautifully tuneful and will take you back to that first Renaissance album of the same name, which featured Haslam and company. Tesar plays the piano part, and then some, and it seems so effortless.

Watch "Prologue"

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Setlist: (Click each song title to hear audio track)
1. Prologue 07:26
2. Carpet of the Sun 03:37
3. Ocean Gypsy 07:36
4. Running Hard 09:39
5. Grandine il Vento 06:54
6. Symphony of Light 12:53
7. Northern Lights 04:16
8. The Mystic and the Muse 07:57
9. Mother Russia 10:07
10. Ashes are Burning 18:19

The show ends (as many great Renaissance shows have) with "Ashes Are Burning". I have seen and heard many powerful performances of "Ashes" over the years, but none are better than what they did at Union Chapel. Toward the end when Annie's voice goes high, and then higher than high, just listening to the audio I could see the mirror ball they used to use at this point in the show. This version also features some incredible keyboards by Tesar, including a mind-blowing synth solo. Listening to this track blew me away.

Watch "Ashes Are Burning" performed at another stop on the same UK tour (Not from DVD).

Youtube user Pancentricism posted this version of "Renaissance playing their encore 'Ashes Are Burning' at the Maltings in Farnham on the 18th April 2015 during their recent European tour. Huge thanks to Annie Haslem for allowing me to post this. The line up is Annie Haslem, Rave Tesar, Tom Brislin, Frank Pagano, Leo Traversa and Mark Lambert."

Photo courtesy of Annie Haslam

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Friday, April 01, 2016

Shannon LaBrie: War & Peace; Nashville Singer-Songwriter Delivers Strong Second Album, It's As Important As It Is Enjoyable

Shannon LaBrie has just released her second album, War & Peace. Her debut made my Top Ten list as one of the best albums of 2013. Back then I was knocked out by LaBrie's songwriting skill and her sweet and soulful voice. As much as I thought of that debut, I find that I'm liking the new one even more. War & Peace had me at track one "It's Political". This song rocks, it's loaded with hooks, and the lead guitar work is so good that Justin Ostrander just became my new hero. Plus, it has lyrics that mean something. In this crazy election year where up is down and down is up, these words could not be more apropos.

It’s political
It’s so ridiculous, So cynical
You must believe that we’re invisible
And we’ve got nothing to say

It’s political
Superfrala egotistical
Every word is so predictable
Every promise you make

I want a prodigy
Someone honest with integrity
A fairytale in this democracy
I’m gonna move out west
Bury all my hope in Kansas
I’m talking bout a disconnect
It’s political

Watch "It's Political"

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War & Peace is really a triumph of songwriting; all tracks were written or co-written by LaBrie. On this record she skillfully deals with some complex and sometimes traumatic issues, bearing her soul and expressing her feelings in these songs.

Tracklist: In her official bio, Shannon provides background and context as follows. Click each song title to listen.

1. It's Political - “Today’s politicians are in a game against each other, and I honestly don’t think they give a damn about the American people,” she says. “They are after a pot of gold, and in the end, we will have to pay for their greed.”

2. For You - “I got so caught up in what others expected of me that I lost sight of who I actually was,” LaBrie says. “I have to do what I believe is right, regardless of the backlash, both personally and professionally.”

3. Took My Whole Life - "LaBrie continues to explore love in the stirring rocker 'It Took My Whole Life'."

4. Heaven Crashed Down - "Labrie gives a visual account of the painful loss of her father, who died in hospice of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma when she was just 13. She sings, 'I hated everything but time; Especially those dark green stairs; They’d be the last stairs he’d ever climb; And the first stairs he’d ever come down dead.' 'In a way, it’s also a confession of losing a belief system,' she says. 'They’d say, He’s in heaven, and We rejoice with you. As a kid, those statements felt crueler than comforting. It was hard to process the slow decline of my dad physically and then finally watch him breathe his last breath.'"

5. American Dream - "LaBrie celebrates feeling thankful to live in a country that offers its citizens a life of endless possibility as a basic human right."

6. Crumble - "...addresses how consuming love can feel."

7. Alcohol (Acoustic Version) - “Addiction is an infectious disease that affects everyone around the addicted,” LaBrie says. “You don’t realize it when you are in the midst of it, but at some point, you find yourself addicted to the vicious cycle as much as the one addicted is to the substance. My addiction to trying to fix him was just as life-altering as his addiction to alcohol.”

8. Against a Wall - “Your ‘friends’ on the other end of the status line don’t have to look at your reality,” LaBrie says. “They only have to look at the ‘reality’ you chose to portray."

9. War & Peace - "Inspired by her boyfriend’s unwavering commitment to their relationship following the loss of their unborn son -- a tragedy that continues to shake Labrie’s heart to this day."

10. Ain't Just a Feeling - "The soulful 'Ain’t Just a Feelin’ captures the solace love provides."

11. Weight of Your Words - "She explores the impact of living with someone’s secret..."

12. Then There's You (feat. Gabe Dixon) - “By the end of the song,” LaBrie says, “you have lived a long life together and have come to a beautiful conclusion that ‘life’ and ‘love’ are just words. It’s the one you love who gives those words life and meaning.”

Labrie's soulful vocals are more appealing than ever. She, and her co-writers, have crafted an album that is chock full of melody. I am also loving the sound of the record, which is a credit to producer Tom Michael. That sound is also a credit to the musicians:

Shannon LaBrie - Lead Vocals, Electric Guitar, Piano, Acoustic Guitar, Wurlitzer, Background Vocals
Matt King - Drums
Justin Ostrander - Lead Guitar
Timothy Charles Barrett - Bass
Tom Michael - Bass
Dave Alan - Organ
Kevin Terry - Cello
Matt Heller - Drums on tracks 9, 10
Shannon Hayden - Lead guitar, Cello, Mandolin, on tracks 9, 10
Kenny Childers - Acoustic Guitar and Background Vocals on tracks 9, 10
Gabe Dixon - Lead Vocal and Piano on track 12

The lead guitar throughout is most impressive. Before knowing who played it, I must admit that the name Mark Knopfler crossed my mind. I love the electric rhythm guitar too, the way it offsets the solos, and created nice texture especially in conjunction with the cello.

After being bowled over by the opening track, the pacing, arrangement, and sound of track two "For You" knocked me out again, indicating the expert production on War & Peace. Click track two above right now to listen and you'll hear how the organ and a most soulful guitar combine to maximum effect, which continues when the full band kicks in.

"Alcohol" is a remarkable track. The piano and cello provide a hauntingly beautiful melody, which frames LaBrie's most personal vocal in such a way that the serious tone of the lyrics is reflected in the music. And in some inspired sequencing, just when you've felt the intensity of "Alcohol", the next track, "Against a Wall", comes on to relieve the tension with some quality uptempo rock. My hat is off to producer Tom Michael.

In similar fashion, the emotional roller coaster that is War & Peace comes to a most delightful conclusion. You may not be expecting it, but "Then There's You" is a sweet love song that features Gabe Dixon, whose voice sounds excellent trading verses and duetting with LaBrie. Dixon also played on the track. Watch the video below.

Shannon LaBrie has avoided the sophomore slump and delivered an album that is as important as it is enjoyable. To have a record sound this good and actually be about something real is unusual in today's world where so much is disposable, even the music.

Watch "Then There's You"

Photos courtesy of Shannon LaBrie

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