Star Man Fades to Black: David Bowie’s Brilliant Final Album

bowie-blackstar-viceAmid the frantic beats, atmospherics, and saxophones playing tug of war on the title track that opens the new David Bowie album Blackstar, about halfway through the 10-minute track most of the sound clears and Bowie sings “Something happened on the day he died, spirit rose a meter and stepped aside; Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried.”

Released on his birthday and just two days before his death, Blackstar is dizzying and exciting and strange and oddly cool and I thought all those things even before he died. But now it’s a little more difficult to hear him wailing “good-byyyyyyye” as the reverb increases and the star man sounds like he’s floating back into space or heaven or wherever he was just visiting from.

Secrets are hard kept in the modern age, and yet somehow Bowie could spend months working on a new album with a small group of people and the rumors never leaked. He stunned the world in 2013 when he suddenly had a brand new (and quite rocking) album, The Next Day. It seemed amazing, even a few years ago, that a major artist could be at work and finished with an album without the world hearing any rumors or news about it (let alone a leaked copy of the actual album). It didn’t hurt that it was a well-received return to form, a rare feat a full 10 years after his previous album.

He came close to pulling it off again, but in 2015 it looks like he chose to give the world a few months’ notice that he’d employed a New York City jazz band to back him on a very diverse record to be released January 8, on his 69th birthday.

And just as we were in the midst of unpacking this complex and interesting new album, Bowie was gone.

The world mourns online and it is one of the bittersweet and ironic advantages of the internet: we can all be together when we’re all alone and sad about the passing of a true artist. And among the inevitable retweets of clueless teenagers asking “who tf was david bowie?” there were countless tributes and notes of sadness, as well as attempts at joy (like this, from Dean Podestá @jesuisdean: “If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”) Others commented that Bowie left such a huge void, as if an entire color was now gone from the universe. (Here’s a great collection of newspaper/magazine covers mourning the loss.)

I wasn’t a huge Bowie fanatic; I liked pretty much all his hits, knew some of his albums, saw him in concert once, and I understood his significance and influence in rock music and popular culture. And I’m probably one of the people that loved his first Tin Machine album. But even beyond the music, Bowie made being “weird” or just being yourself (and shattering such labels as “weird”) something to aspire to. Funny that there was a time when a kid could get beat up for liking David Bowie. But we don’t live in a world like that anymore, thanks in part to David Bowie. It’s okay to be yourself. It’s okay to be different.

He didn’t just predict the future, he helped us get here. Continue reading →

Interview With (A) Neil Young (Fan)

NeilYoungNeil Young has been making the media rounds lately, and since he always has some new album or other new endeavor going on almost every year, I figured instead of interviewing Neil Young, I’d interview a Neil Young fan instead.

Actually, I couldn’t land an interview with Neil Young if I tried, so “Interview With (A) Neil Young (Fan)” isn’t just the next best thing, it’s the only thing.

We were both born in the early 70’s, so we were still mere babies when Neil Young became a star and first embedded himself into the rock’n’roll popular culture consciousness with his solo works and albums with Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. As a teenager in the 80’s (probably the commercial and critical low point of his career), what drew you to Neil Young and how did you become such a big fan? Or did it start earlier as a child in the 70’s?

I remember one of my older brothers owning the Live Rust album and him cranking the songs “Sugar Mountain” and “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black)” and just being enamored with the sounds. I had no grasp of who Neil Young was. Like any younger brother I just wanted to emulate whatever my brother did.  A few years later I started playing the guitar and  I heard “Down By The River.” I remember thinking that it was a song unlike any I had ever heard before. It’s unpolished, simplistic nature was just something I was not used to hearing at that time. Matter of fact, I recall the first CD I ever purchased being Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere simply for that song. When I headed off to college I somehow scored the Decade compilation and that pretty much pushed me over the edge.

Your personal Absolute Favorite Neil Young Album, if you were force to name just one?

Wow, now that might be the hardest question you could ever ask a Neil Young fan such as myself. I honestly can’t say that I have a “favorite” album of his since there are so many that I am drawn to. I mean, On The Beach holds a special place in my heart because I love every single song on that record (an album I received in a trade with a close friend. I got On The Beach, he got a Cindy Crawford Playboy). And while Decade is a “compilation” vs. a proper album, it is perhaps the album that turned me from a casual fan into a hardcore one. It would be the album that I would probably tell someone who’s never heard Neil to listen to first. Those being said, I also absolutely love Tonight’s The Night, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Le Noise, and I do own the 63-72 Archives box set which is off the hook awesome.  Might as well toss in Rust Never Sleeps because let’s face it, it’s fuckin’ awesome. Live At Massey Hall used to only be a bootleg but it’s since had a proper release, and is Neil as his intimate, solo, acoustic best!

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An Ode To Judas Priest

judas_priest_wallpaper_by_coshkun-d3in61p
Between the years of 1982 – 1988 my favorite band on the planet–by a wide margin–was Judas Priest. I was borderline obsessed and consider them my first true musical love. My bedroom walls were covered with 6′ posters, wall tapestries, and cut out photos from the likes of Creem and Hit Parader of my leather-clad heroes. When my parents bought me my first Walkman the first tape I threw in was Priest’s underrated debut album Rocka Rolla and I listened to it 10,000 times if I listened to it once.

During this time period you would hard pressed to find a heavy metal band bigger than Judas Priest (maybe Iron Maiden, but that is an argument I choose to not partake in since I had it about 1639 times in 8th grade with my Maiden-loving cohorts. I’ll admit this though: Maiden had way better album covers). They had some radio-friendly singles (“Breaking The Law”, “Living After Midnight”, and “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming”) and pretty much sold out 20,000 seat arenas all over America (I should also note here that Priest was able to achieve this success without ever being considered “sell outs” and continually sustaining respect among their peers, including being one of the few metal bands asked to perform at Live Aid. They had a plethora of metal street cred stocked up in their well).

On June 6, 1986 I became one of those 20,000 fans and attended my first concert ever at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey: Judas Priest with opener…Krokus (a band that had absolutely zero shot of “blowing” anyone off the stage but themselves). I knew every note of every song they played. I sang along to every anthemic chorus The Metal God sang, and I pumped my 13-year old fists in the devil horn \m/ for 2+ hours. I didn’t want the show to end. It was heavy metal ecstasy up to an including the guy in the row in front of us asking me if I had a rolling paper (I had no idea what a rolling paper was at the time. I just wanted to hear “Victim Of Changes“–which they didn’t play but did at a later show I saw).

Over the next few years I would see Priest only three more times during this peak period of their career. As I aged, my musical tastes expanded and Priest slowly fell out of my repertoire. I always maintained a respect for the band, it’s just that over time, some of their music didn’t age too well and some of their later albums didn’t have the direction and cohesiveness of their previous works. They seemed more like a band trying to fit in with the modern trends (Turbo) vs. creating them (British Steel). Turbo was a synth-laced pop metal album (which some fans, to this day, will never forgive them for). Ram It Down (the last album I actually bought of theirs) seemed like it had the band heading back in the right direction, but it’s trashy, speed-metalesque songs just didn’t sound like…Judas Priest. I mean, it had the fast guitar solos, the insane operatic metal screams, and the “metal” lyrics. It simply didn’t sound like the Priest we were used to but a Priest that was trying to keep up with new up-and-comers like Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer, and Pantera (all heavily influenced by, as Phil Anselmo calls em, Judas Fuckin’ Priest!).

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Zappa Plays Zappa As Good As Zappa

11mays.large2I consider myself a big Frank Zappa fan. Yet, just by looking over his discography, I realized that I am not that big a Frank Zappa fan. He has over 60 albums produced, hundreds of live shows recorded and released, tv performances, movies, etc. I would need three lifetimes of isolated listening just to digest (and understand) even half of his catalog.

So when I recently bought tickets to see Zappa Plays Zappa at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, I went into it fully realizing that I probably wouldn’t know half the songs they were going to play. So I cheated in order to tease myself: I went online and checked out some previous set lists from this tour and wouldn’t you know it, more than half of the songs in the list were ones I had never heard (I find it necessary to put a disclaimer in here right now because I know how crazy some Zappaheads can get: I am a Zappa fan, but not a fanatic. My preference when it comes to Zappa are more inline with his “serious” works vs. the “satire”, “improv”, and “humor” he often implemented into his music and shows. While I fully appreciate that aspect of his songwriting genius, I simply prefer(ed) to listen to him wail on the guitar while the Greatest Back-Up Band(s)-To-Ever-Walk-The-Face-Of-The-Earth went bat shit crazy behind him. Therefor, I am aware that my knowledge of his discography is limited yet still deeper than casual.)

I went to see a Zappa cover band a few years back (I won’t mention their name) and left after five songs. Not because they weren’t good (cause let’s face it, just being able to play one Zappa song–any Zappa song–makes you a pretty damn good musician in my book), but because it just wasn’t anywhere close to the real thing. It lacked authenticity. Dweezil Zappa heads up Zappa Plays Zappa, and Dweezil is as close to Frank as we as fans are ever going to get. It’s like watching Jason Bonham play drums: even if his last name wasn’t Bonham we’d still be impressed with his playing nonetheless. It just helps to alleviate any apprehension we have towards listening by saying to ourselves, “well, at least it’s his son playing!” While some children-of-famous-musicians go out of their way to avoid the shadows of their parents, Dweezil has embraced his legendary father’s music. Frank’s shadow is simply too long to avoid.

Right off the bat I knew the band would be good. How could they not be? I just wasn’t prepared for how good. Let’s start with Dweezil. Obviously we know the dude can play guitar (Franks Gibson SG to be exact). But come on, man, when did he get this good? (probably 20 years ago, I just wasn’t paying attention). I am rarely into the fast, shredding-type players (I appreciate Vai, Satriani, et al, but to me, it’s just dudes playing fast for other dudes to impress them with how fast they can play, dude.), but Dweezil inherited his father’s Coltrane-esque phrasing and sense of the musical moment. His guitar sounded sweet, he played it sweet, and he did his father’s music much justice. I thought during one of Dweezil’s (many) guitar solos, “Frank would be impressed.”

I’ve always said that you can take 8 bars of a Zappa song and any other band would make an entire song out of it. Within each song is basically 4-8 movements. The amount of concentration and memory it must take to perform a set of his music is mind-boggling. As a musician, when you watch other musicians that are this good, it makes you either want to quit playing altogether…or practice more.   I won’t list each member of the band here (drummer, keyboard, bass, two multi-instrumentalists/vocalists) because you don’t need to hear about how great each of them were individually. They were absolutely amazing in every sense.

The highlight of the show was an improvisational moment when Dweezil called up a young girl from the audience who couldn’t have been older than 7. He asked her, “do you play any instruments?” to which she replied, “the flute.” Dweezil proceeded to put his guitar around her shoulder and stand behind her as he helped her “play” it. The audience roared. He turned the distortion to ten, cranked out some AC/DC-type rocker riff and the band picked up behind them. This little girl was jamming onstage with the band and we, the audience, ate it up. It was classic Zappa showmanship. Once she was done–and the standing ovation died down–he asked her, “so…still want to play the flute?” You think that girl doesn’t grow up to join a band??? Let’s hope.

There were so many insane musical moments throughout the show that it’s hard to point out any one. It’s such a profound experience when you witness such great musicianship in a live setting. I have always known that Zappa’s music is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be complicated and confusing to the average listener. The odd rhythms and weird instrumentation (and even weirder, often hilariously satirical lyrics) assured he would never have a #1 hit. Parts rarely repeat themselves. Shit, time signatures rarely repeat themselves. It’s not “easy listening” by any account. Dweezil and his band did a fantastic job of keeping the musical visions of Frank alive, and judging by the near sold out crowd and numerous standing ovations, there are still plenty of people out there that appreciate the Zappa catalog. As hard as that is to imagine, it gives me hope knowing that some music fans still want to be challenged by the artists they listen to.

Modern Man: A Night With Stanley Clarke

timthumbLast night the wife and I went to a local music/dinner club called The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA. It’s a great venue with a great reputation that books acts ranging from jazz greats to blues masters to Americana roots rock. You walk in, grab a seat at a communal table, order over-priced but decent dinner fare, and watch the artists perform to a room full of attentive spectators.  It’s a music club for people who don’t mind sitting down while watching music. It offers you the ability to enjoy an artist without the distractions that come with most rock clubs.

That is why I was somewhat amazed last night on a few levels. We went to see the legendary (and way too under-appreciated) Stanley Clarke. If you don’t know who he is, well, go find out. Before the show I knew of Stanley Clarke, “heard of him” but never actually listened to any of his music knowingly. He’s done work on movie soundtracks, played with some of the all-time jazz greats, and is generally well-regarded in the musical community. He’s a bass player that transcends classification. A true “artist” of his craft. Funk, jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, salsa, etc. etc. etc. Stanley Clarke has played it and played it better than 99.99% of anyone else that ever has.

What amazed me first and foremost during the show was his scaled-down band: Stanley on bass, a drummer, and a piano player. I thought, “Ok, this is going to be ‘good’ but probably end up repetitive and boring as the set goes on. I mean, how much can you do with a trio like that?” Of course I was wrong (it’s happened before and depending on whom you ask the numbers vary). The drummer was 19 and the piano player (from the Republic of Georgia) was 17! Let me say that again: 17! (As of this posting Stanley Clarke is 62).

I think it’s pretty wise for an old-timer like Clarke to select young, extremely talented musicians to surround him. They brought an exuberance that helped keep the set fresh and improvisational. They were both spectacular at their respective instruments. The drummer’s arms on some of his solos looked like humming birds wings and the piano player played with a passion and soul you seldom find in someone so young. They both received more than one standing ovation.

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Revisiting Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath
One of my earliest childhood memories was not of learning to ride a bike or my first day of school or the first time I walked into a professional baseball park. It involved something much less childlike in nature. It was my discovery of Black Sabbath. In particular, the opening notes of the song “Iron Man.”

My brothers and I shared one of those every-school-had-one old school tape recorders. It was the portable audio device of its time. Built-in tape deck, built-in speaker, a little handle to carry it around with. The original boom box. One day, in it, I discovered one of my brothers tapes. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. I had no clue who this band was, what they sounded like, or why my brother even owned the tape. I brought it into my room, sat it down on the floor, put myself next to it, and hit the play button.

Thump-thumb-thump-thump–dddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-dddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

I AM IRON MAN!

Holy fuckin shit I was floored! I mean, my mind was literally blown. I wish I had a photo of the expression on my face when I first heard Ozzy’s techo-fuzzed voice. I immediately rewound the tape and listened again.

I AM IRON MAN!

Repeat 13,736 times.

I had never heard anything like it before in my life, and my life was forever changed by it. I couldn’t care less about the rest of the song. That fuckin’ intro was so amazing to my adolescent mind. It’s still amazing to my adult mind. What does that say about my mind?

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Farewell Transmission

I guess it’s sadly fitting that Jason Molina would turn into a ghost before he reached the horizon.

He was a severely underrated and sadly under-appreciated musician and writer who recently died at the age of 39.  Even if you’ve never heard of the late singer/songwriter known for his bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co, please visit the Steam Engine music blog to read our farewell transmission remembering Jason Molina by clicking here.