Monday, July 25, 2016

Dexys - Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul; Music To Warm Your Heart and Make You Smile



All photos courtesy of Dexys

Dexys Midnight Runners was an Irish Band, best known in this country for their 1983 hit "Come On Eileen". The band formed in 1978 and over the years they've broken up and reassembled numerous times. When co-founder and leader Kevin Rowland assembled the current band, he shortened the name to Dexys. Dexys has just released it's fifth album, Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul, which is an album of covers. The mix of songs on this record is sufficiently idiosyncratic; you might expect the traditional Irish songs, which are beautifully rendered, but the pop songs they do are a continually surprising delight. Here's what Rowland had to say about this project on the Dexys website:
“The album is called ‘Dexys DO Irish and Country Soul’: DO it, not BECOME it,” he emphasises. “We’re not trying to be Irish, and we haven’t used too many Celtic instruments on there. It’s our sound. We’re bringing our style to these songs. I’m just a guy who follows my intuition, my inspiration. This really felt like the right thing to do. We have put probably more care and attention into these songs than we might have done with our own songs, because the odds were high. It was important to get them right, and make sure every one of them felt relevant to us.”
There are a couple of ways to take this album. Take 1 is, as advertised, a loving tribute to the music that Rowland has always wanted to do. Takes 2 and 3 are essentially two sides of the same coin, which I'll refer to as the tavern interpretation. Take 2 is that the singer might be a guy at the bar, singing along with the jukebox. Take 3 would be the singer on stage at the very same tavern singing karaoke. Let's have a listen and break it down.



Tracklist (Click track name to listen)

1. Women of Ireland - This is a gorgeous, gorgeous instrumental featuring special guest Helen O'Hara on violin. Based on a traditional Irish folk melody, the song is credited to Seán Ó Riada, a composer and arranger. Ó Riada was once a member of The Chieftains, who recorded the song on their Chieftains 4 album in 1973. Many diverse artists have recorded this tune.

2. To Love Somebody - This very beloved Bee Gees' song has a half spoken/half sung vocal by Rowland, which is as endearing as it is dramatic. The band does a loving interpretation of the brothers Gibb.

3. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes - Rowland's oh so serious reading of this Jerome Kern classic, dating back to 1933, sounds more like a 50s oldie. Whether the performance is serious or it's a touch ironic (or both), you will have to judge.

4. Curragh of Kildare - Beginning with a spoken word poem, "Curragh of Kildare" gets a straight forward treatment. I think that no one is better than Dexys when it comes to traditional Irish songs.

5. I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen - This is another Irish song, written in 1875 by Thomas P. Westendorf, a teacher, about his wife. Rowland and company shine with a version that features more gorgeous strings.

6. You Wear It Well - Rowland sounds earnest on Rod Stewart's "You Wear It Well". In addition to the popularity of the song, I have to believe that part of the reason it's here is a reference to Rowland's sense of "style" which is explained in detail on the Dexys website.

7. 40 Shades of Green - This track is somewhat unique in that it is both an Irish song and also a Johnny Cash cover, one that Cash recorded and released as a single B-side in 1961. The simplistic arrangement and Rowland's vocal contributed to a friend's comment that this sounds like a guy at a bar singing, thus the Take 2 interpretation.

8. How Do I Live - This LeAnn Rimes hit, written by Dianne Warren, is one of the more unlikely songs in this lineup. The same friend, who commented on the last track, goes wild when she hears this one. She says, it's karaoke night all the way, "with the singer wearing Mom jeans and a trucker hat, glass of Guinness in his hand." She loves to cue the player up to the part where Rowland goes, "How-How-How..." thirteen times, and at that point she demonstrates by shooting her hand up in the air going a different direction with each "How", hence the Take 3 interpretation.

9. Grazing in the Grass - Dexys here are covering the 1969 Friends of Distinction hit rather than the original version by Hugh Masekela. The band is excellent on this track as are the backing singers. Roland plays the drama of the lead vocal to the hilt; you have to hear him go, "Can you dig it, baby". This track is one of the many reasons to love this album.

10. The Town I Loved So Well - Phil Coulter wrote this lament for his beloved hometown of Derry in Northern Ireland. The band sounds lovely and Rowland plays it straight in this very Irish song.

11. Both Sides Now - Both band and singer excel on this faithful version of the Joni Mitchell penned classic which is mostly known for Judy Collins' 1968 hit.

12. Carrickfergus - I first heard the traditional folk ballad "Carrickfergus" on an album by Van Morrison and the Chieftains. This piano based rendition features Roland with a soulful and referential vocal that concludes the record quite nicely.

About those several possible interpretations I referred to at the top, Take 1 clearly applies to all of the Irish songs. It's also easy to imagine a tavern full of people all singing along with Dexys' "Carrickfergus". The beauty of the pop songs is that all three takes could apply, and the song choices are such that they might well reflect selections on a tavern jukebox.

By my reckoning, there are plenty of reasons to love this album, twelve at the very least. But, like any work of creative expression, it's not for everyone. If listening to this record does not put a smile on your face and warm your heart, I would suggest looking elsewhere. It does all that for me and more, so I give it my unequivocal recommendation.


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Dexys 2016 consists of:
Kevin Rowland - vocals
Sean Read - vocals, keyboards
Lucy Morgan - viola

Additional Personnel:
Big Jimmy Patterson - trombone
Mike Timothy - keyboards
Tim Cansfield - guitar
Dave Ruffy - drums
Andy Hobson - bass guitar
Special guest: Helen O'Hara - violin

Also appearing on Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul:
Mary Pearce - vocals
Matt Child - keyboards
C J Jones - drums
Ben Trigg - cello
Tom Piggott-Smith - violin
Alice Pratley - violin
Kirsty Mangan - violin
Graham Pike - chromatic harmonica
Camilla Pay - harp
Jody Linscott - percussion
Gavin Fitzjohn - trumpet
Kim Chandler - backing vocals

Official Videos:
Watch "Grazing In The Grass"


Watch "Carrickfergus"


Watch "Both Sides Now"


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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bob Dylan, The Mann Center, Philadelphia, 7/13/2016; A Right of Passage Long Overdue




In all my years of concert going, there was one giant missing piece. I had never been to a Bob Dylan show. I have read enough to know that Dylan likes to make his concerts, let's say, "challenging" to the audience. So I was prepared to find much of the show undecipherable. I was pleased with actually recognizing two songs from the first set. I knew three from the second set, plus one of the two encore songs.

In the first set, he did a fairly faithful reading of the standard "Melancholy Mood". He ended that set with my favorite of his many great songs, "Tangled up in Blue". Armed with the above foreknowledge, I wasn't thrown that the song didn't sound anything like the original on Blood On the Tracks. What I wasn't ready for was the completely new rhythm and completely new melody, if you want to call it that. The only way to know it was "Tangled up in Blue" was that the lyrics were unchanged, except that he replaced the verse about stopping into a topless place with a harmonica solo.

Both sets contained a mix of originals and the standards from the Great American Songbook. The second set featured "I Could Have Told You", "All Or Nothing At All", and ended with "Autumn Leaves", all three true to Dylan's rather traditional interpretation on his last two albums.



The first song of his encore was "Blowin' in the Wind" which, like "Tangled up in Blue", had a whole different rhythm and melody. "Blowin' in the Wind" is a timeless protest song, which maintains its relevance through the decades. The current environment of political and social injustice, both domestic and worldwide, almost begs for audiences to hear and appreciate "Blowin' in the Wind" and what it has to say. But, Dylan so eviscerated the song in this rendition that that would be quite impossible.

I am not a Dylanologist so I will not try to speculate as to why Dylan does this to his own material. If there is one thing that should be abundantly clear to him after doing two albums of standards, it's that the staying power of a beautiful song is dependent on a relatively faithful interpretation. To prepare for recording that material, Dylan reportedly listened to Frank Sinatra's version of almost every song. How he could do a faithful treatment of "Autumn Leaves" and then come back and sing a barely recognizable "Blowin' in the Wind" is a mystery to me. The same goes for "Tangled Up In Blue".

On a plus note, Dylan's touring band is the best. They were a big part of the artistic success of Dylan's standards albums, especially the pedal steel guitarist. Dylan was in good voice, neither as raspy and unintelligible as he can sometimes be, nor as smooth as he was on those last two albums. Dylan could allow you to clearly understand every word...when he wanted to.

The staging of his show was a bit unusual. There was an intermission after Mavis Staples then at about 9:00 PM, with no warning, Dylan and Band instantly began to play the first song. Throughout the show when each song ended, instruments began to play immediately, even before the applause. These instruments at first sounded like they might be tuning, but as it occurred after every song, it seemed more like these might be short instrumental interludes; somewhat disconcerting. Perhaps these interludes were devised because Dylan doesn't speak to the audience at all during the show, he doesn't introduce the songs, and he doesn't introduce the band. He just comes out and sings, and on some songs he also plays harmonica, guitar, or piano. I don't have a bucket list, but if I did, I could now check off "Bob Dylan concert". There are many ways to enjoy a live performance, and I would say all told, I was glad to see Dylan; and compared with years of reading about him, he did not disappoint. I consider seeing a Dylan concert to be a rite of passage, and one that was long overdue.



Here is the setlist (courtesy of setlist.fm) from The Mann Center for Performing Arts:

Set 1:
Things Have Changed
She Belongs to Me
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Full Moon and Empty Arms (Frank Sinatra cover)
Pay in Blood
Melancholy Mood (Frank Sinatra cover)
Duquesne Whistle
How Deep Is the Ocean? (How High Is the Sky?) (Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra cover)
Tangled Up in Blue

Set 2:
High Water (For Charley Patton)
Why Try to Change Me Now (Cy Coleman cover)
Early Roman Kings
I Could Have Told You (Frank Sinatra cover)
Spirit on the Water
Scarlet Town
All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra cover)
Long and Wasted Years
Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand cover)

Encore:
Blowin' in the Wind
Stay With Me (Frank Sinatra cover)


Photos courtesy of Bob Dylan

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Mavis Staples, The Mann Center, Philadelphia, 7/13/2016; As Opener for Bob Dylan, Mavis Was a Revelation




Mavis Staples is amazing. I had not had the pleasure of seeing her play live before, but fortuitously she is out on tour right now with Bob Dylan as his opening act. Her show, which clocked in at something under 40 minutes, was one the those rare opening sets that you wish were longer. Mavis drew most of her excellent set from The Staple Singers catalog, with two notable cover songs (see setlist below). She had the rapport and dynamics of a revival preacher on a Sunday morning. The band was terrific, especially the guitarist.

Midway through her set she did "Freedom Highway", a song that she said was written by her father (the late) Pops Staples in 1962 for the Civil Right March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Mavis went on, "I was there, I am a living witness." And with that she sang Buffalo Springfield's durable protest anthem, "For What It's Worth". Her version was awesome and considering recent events involving policing, protest, and the racial divide in this country, the lyrics took on all kinds of new meaning. Then she launched into her set closer, The Staple Singers' classic "I'll Take You There", complete with call and response audience participation on the chorus.

In addition to being a phenomenal singer and performer, Mavis Staples is a bit of living history. This is an excerpt from her bio, "Staples is a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee, and has appeared with the likes of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, Obama, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Petty. She's recorded with Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marty Stuart, Los Lobos, and many more."



As good as her last couple of albums are, they don't begin to do justice to the dynamo of talent and energy that is Mavis Staples. I was just about to type that she needs to make a live album, preferably at one of the blues clubs in her hometown of Chicago, when my research team pointed out that she has done exactly that back in 2008. I have just listened to Mavis Staples Live: Hope at the Hideout, and it offers Mavis in all her live glory, performing at the Hideout in Chicago; perfect. This record offers nearly everything she did at The Mann, and much more. I give this live album my unqualified recommendation. Read this review by Hal Horowitz.
Chicago is Mavis Staples' hometown so she is in exceptionally fine spirits on this 2008 live set, her first solo concert recording, at the Windy City's Hideout venue. Backed by a stripped down yet phenomenal three piece band of veterans featuring guitarist Rick Holmstrom, drummer Stephen Hodges and bassist Jeff Turmes along with a trio of backing vocalists, Staples comes to "bring joy, happiness, inspiration and some positive vibrations." Mission accomplished on this hour long set that borrows liberally from her 2007 civil rights oriented album We’ll Never Turn Back, but ups the energy and commitment for the live show. Her group burrows into a deep, dark swamp groove led by Holmstrom's shimmering guitar perfect for Staples' husky, gospel voice to pour into. On "This Little Light" she vocally riffs off the repeated lick, bringing intensity to the song only hinted at in its studio version. She digs back into her catalog to revive the traditional "Wade in the Water," here given a slight funk backbeat and brought to shore by Staples' gutsy, churchy reading. She's practically forced into a closing encore of the Staples Singers' signature tune "I'll Take You There," a sing-along for the audience played against skeletal guitar and enough joyous handclaps to raise the club, and now the listener, a little closer to heaven.
Here is the setlist (courtesy of setlist.fm) from the Mann Center for Performing Arts:

If You're Ready (Come Go With Me), The Staple Singers song
Take Us Back
Slippery People, Talking Heads cover
Touch a Hand (Make a Friend)
You Are Not Alone
Freedom Highway, The Staple Singers song
For What It's Worth, Buffalo Springfield cover
I'll Take You There, The Staple Singers song


Photos courtesy of Mavis Staples


Mavis Staples Live: Hope at the Hideout
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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Billy Joel, Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, 7/09/2016, It's All About the Shared Experience With 30,000 Of Your Closest Friends; Christina Perri Opened



Photos courtesy of Billy Joel

The Billy Joel faithful converged on Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia last night to partake in what has become one of the rites of summer. Joel delivered a tight twenty-six song set packed with hits and favorite album tracks. He joked at the beginning that this wasn't one of those concerts where you have to sit through the artist's new album, which was pretty much stating the obvious since he hasn't released a new pop record since 1993. But that's okay, his fans still come out in droves whenever he plays live, and this was his fifth time performing at a Phillies' ballpark. He has sold out the New York baseball stadiums many times and he became the first artist in residence at Madison Square Garden recently, playing a monthly concert at that venue, I believe selling out the place regularly.

As you can see on the setlist below, there was no letup; he'd go from one great song right into another, to the crowd's delight.

With all of the joy taking place around me, I couldn't escape the feeling that something was off. In all of the excitement of the big time rock show, the first casualty seemed to be the music. It wasn't the performances; Joel was on his game and his band was an assemblage of super talented musicians. So what was it?

Let's start with the sound. It was loud, sure, but I don't have any problem with loud. It was the quality of the sound. It reminded me of what it would sound like if you played a friend's cheap stereo and turned it up so loud that the sound would begin to distort. Joel's voice was amplified plenty loud, loud enough to hold its own with the band in most situations. It was so loud in fact that Joel lost a lot of the nuance that he puts into a song. A few times it sounded like he backed off the mike for a more realistic sound to his voice. Unfortunately, when all the band played at once in high gear, like on "Sometimes a Fantasy", the band tended to distort and drown Joel out. This was especially bad on "We Didn't Start the Fire", which is his most lyric driven song. Watching the crowd dance and sing during that song made it evident that the majority of the audience didn't notice, didn't care, or had this song so ingrained for so long that it didn't really matter. Joel's solo piano, like on the intro to "New York State of Mind", almost sounded rinky-dink, like Schroeder's toy piano in the Peanuts cartoons.

I've seen many a stadium show and I've heard the outdoor sound technology develop from irrelevant (The Beatles at JFK Stadium where the crowd drowned out the band), to bad (Grand Funk at Shea Stadium, which Rolling Stone Magazine described as "the world's largest transistor radio", to excellent (Bruce Springsteen at Veteran's Stadium on the Born to Run tour). At that last one, every instrument was crystal clear and it was so loud that you literally could feel every beat of the bass drum right in your chest. That was back in 1985, so to my way of thinking, there's no excuse for last night's show sounding the way it did. But the sound quality wasn't the only thing bothering me.

For a little over twenty years, starting in 1971, Billy Joel wrote and recorded an incredible body of work, one that solidly puts him on a level with the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Last night, I was wondering what makes a crowd this size shell out for overpriced tickets, overpriced parking, overpriced food and beverage, and overpriced merchandise, not to mention the time, energy, and traffic involved in attending a stadium show. Last night a lot of money changed hands, in the millions of dollars. I think that this gets to the heart of what else was bothering me. This amazing catalog of music was being reduced to a commodity, and while that notion may be "quaint" in the cold, hard reality of the music business, I grew up in an era when the music was everything and the concert experience was sacrosanct.


Photo: Anna Kates

The pieces fell into place during "Piano Man", a definite highlight of the show and Joel's last song of the set. As he sang, the crowd sang right along with him, not just a verse or a chorus, but the entire song. I guess Joel is used to this because near the end of it, Joel and the band drop out leaving the crowd to sing the final chorus. Regardless of how many times you've seen a Springsteen crowd do the same thing on the first verse of "Hungry Heart", it was still an electrifying moment. The crowd also reacted when he sang, "It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday". I think that the lyrics of "Piano Man" held some clue to this music as commodity/stadium show business.

It's a pretty good crowd for a Saturday
And the manager gives me a smile
'Cause he knows that it's me they've been comin' to see
To forget about life for a while...

That's exactly it, "it's me they've been comin' to see to forget about life for a while". In addition to the obvious good time (or maybe contributing to it), there was plenty of beer flowing and at one point Joel commented on the aroma of the smoke wafting over the stage. At the end of the day it was all about the shared experience of a Billy Joel concert.

Early on in the set, Joel played "The Entertainer", his commentary on the music business circa 1974. After playing it, Joel joked, "I didn't know what I was talking about" (back then). Regarding the lyric, "And I won't be here in another year if I don't stay on the charts", he quipped, "I haven't been on the charts in twenty-three years." The irony that Joel's jab at the music business was now part of his million dollar commodity was not lost on him, or me.

The set opened nicely with Miami 2017 followed by "My Life", which used Bach's "Ode to Joy" as an intro. Joel came right back with "Just the Way You Are", arguably one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Every song in the set was beloved, but I was really happy to hear "And So It Goes".

The news has been so awful lately that I wasn't expecting Joel to comment on it unless he had something very heartfelt or substantive to say. But, bring it up he did, and after a pause he said, "If I had a gun I'd shoot my TV", pause, "This is the City of Brotherly Love", pause, "I've always gotten a lot of love from this city", pause, "We'll get through it", pause, "You just have to keep the faith." With that he launched into "Keeping the Faith". I wasn't alone in thinking it was somewhat of a disappointment to hear him use this week's events as a song intro in this way.

Even still, "Keeping The Faith" is a great song and I was glad to hear it. Next up was "I Go to Extremes", an unexpected pleasure. My daughter went in hoping to hear "The River of Dreams" and he played it next, complete with a mid-song excursion into a Beatles cover, "A Hard Day's Night". That lead into Joel's classic "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" and he totally had the crowd in the palm of his hand setting up "Piano Man".

The encore lasted a good twenty minutes (see setlist), and the party revved up a couple of notches as the song selection was classic rock show, leading up to "You May Be Right" which included a slice of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll", a song which actually benefitted from the stadium sound. After that Joel closed the night with "Only the Good Die Young" and sent everyone home dancing and happy. And that was what it was all about.


Christina Perri at the Mann Center for Performing Arts, 2015 (photo courtesy of popentertainmentblog.com)

Christina Perri played a valiant opening set, full of energy and excitement despite the fact that some of the crowd was still entering and the overcooked sound was less than optimal. Still it was good to hear "A Thousand Years", which was the next to last number of her seven song set. She closed with "Only Human", which got her a nice ovation from the crowd and ended her set on a happy note. Perri talked about growing up in Bensalem, PA and that she realized early on that music was her life but she never dreamed that one day she would be performing at the Phillies' stadium or that she would be opening for Billy Joel. Perri was a good choice for opening act.

Setlist (courtesy of setlist.fm)

Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
My Life (with 'Ode to Joy' intro)
Just the Way You Are
Big Man on Mulberry Street
The Entertainer
New York State of Mind (with 'Rhapsody in Blue' snippet)
Prelude/Angry Young Man (first since 3/11/2010)
And So It Goes
Allentown
Captain Jack
She's Always a Woman
Don't Ask Me Why
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Edward Meeker cover)
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Sometimes a Fantasy
Keeping the Faith
I Go to Extremes
The River of Dreams (with 'A Hard Day's Night' (The Beatles) snippet)
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

Encore:
We Didn't Start the Fire
Uptown Girl
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Big Shot
You May Be Right (with 'Rock and Roll' (Led Zeppelin) snippet)
Only the Good Die Young



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