Friday, September 5, 2014

REVIEW - Bumbershoot dispatch #3: Big Star tribute "Third"

Jody Stephens of Big Star at Bumbershoot 2014

The story behind Big Star's messy and ambitious, sad and brilliant, beloved third record known as both Third and Sister Lovers (a story in itself), is too long to retell here, but you can start with this wiki primer. More importantly, if you don't know Third, do yourself a huge favor and pick it up. It's a must have record for anyone who cares about power pop or the last 40 years of alternative music. And if you somehow have missed Big Star altogether, somewhat understandable given how tragically under the radar their career was, Mike Mills from R.E.M. wrote a fine essay about the band this week for Salon magazine here. And you can watch the recent documentary film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.  

One of our favorite musicians, Chris Stamey (founding member of the similarly under-appreciated power pop heroes the dBs), has painstakingly put together a series of Big Star tribute shows around the world, featuring Jody Stephens, the sole remaining member of the 1970's Memphis quartet, along with a primarily North Carolina-based band assembled by Stamey, augmented with rotating guests. Featuring Third in these tribute shows as was done at Bumbershoot is particularly apt since Stephens was the only band member who worked with Alex Chilton on the record (recorded in 1974), the band falling apart at that point.

On this night in Seattle, the list of guests was impressive - along with frequent Big Star tribute members Mitch Easter and Mike Mills, we had Peter Buck, Steve Wynn, Scott McCaughey, local boys Mike McCready and Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, and many more. That many contributors could lead to chaos, yet it was a gorgeous set, well organized, deeply moving, and truly perfect in every way. Frankly, this is a difficult review to write because it was a very emotional show, the songs themselves emotional and complex, and the material and experience of playing the songs together so obviously significant to the assembled musicians.

Despite all the big name guests, it's Stamey and Stephens who make the thing soar  -- Stamey as band leader, conductor, and stage manager, with Stephens as the heart and soul, and proving to be a fine singer himself. They performed Third in its entirety, well assisted by a string quartet of local Seattle classical musicians, plus horns, Mills on bass, Easter on guitar, and the rotating cast coming and going on a variety of electric and string instruments and keyboards, Stamey utilizing and directing their talents well on individual elements of songs (need a mandolin part? well here's Peter Buck!).

The singing and warm harmonies were shared among many, but the highlight of the show for me was regular member Skylar Gudasz from Chapel Hill NC, whose lead vocal on "Thirteen" did complete justice to the devastating sympathy of that song, which to me, as much as any song in the Big Star catalogue, demonstrates why so many musicians and music writers consider them one of the most important bands in history. Here she is performing "Thirteen" in London in 2012:

One of the most powerful things about music is that it hits you where are at the moment. And as I listened to "Thirteen" on Sunday, I found myself suddenly thinking of my twin daughters heading off for their first day of high school this week, the song so capturing the vulnerability and innocence of that age and the fragile first steps towards independence.  I ran into Skylar Gudasz hours later while I was walking out of the festival and heading to my hotel, so I introduced myself, telling her that her vocal on "Thirteen" brought me to the verge of tears. If she thought I was some kind of weido, she was kind enough not to let it show and instead graciously thanked me.  But it truly was that kind of night. As I looked around the audience during the show, people were so visibly touched by the music, these being such powerful songs so exquisitely performed. 

Similarly affecting was Brett Harris' vocal performance on "Kangaaroo", and here's a fine recording of that one from North Carolina earlier this year:

"KANGAROO" BIG STAR THIRD from Creato Destructo on Vimeo.
After finishing their presentation of Third, they closed with a few choice other classics - the late Alex Chilton's power pop masterpiece "September Gurls" and the late Chris Bell's devastating "I Am the Cosmos". Mike Mills brought a great energy, some rock star presence and the ability to bring the crowd in when he took lead vocals on "September Gurls", as he had early in the show on "Jesus Christ".   

The spirit of the night was perhaps best captured in "Thank You Friends", this fan video here from another recent Big Star tribute show but similar in feel to what I saw in Seattle last Sunday: 

Here is a directive from WYMA blog: If a Big Star Tribute show put together by Chris Stamey ever appears anywhere near your city, you must attend. It's an unforgettable and magical musical experience.

Big Star tribute band web page:

You can listen to all of Big Star's Third in its original splendor here:

Rolling Stones Friday: She's a Rainbow

The late 1960's was a fascinating and tumultuous time. But a good bit bit of it around the edges was ridiculous - silly fashions, expressions ("sock it to me baby!"), social extremes, nonsensical sounds and hippie dippy lyrics ("I love the flower girl / Oh I don't know just why / She simply caught my eye"). And not even the great bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones were immune from some cringe worthy stuff.

And on the surface, I suppose the song "She'a Rainbow" from Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) could fall into this category.  "She comes in colors everywhere / she's like a rainbow." Seriously?

But call it a guilty pleasure or whatever you want - I love this song! Nicky Hopkins' piano, the baroque chamber pop sound, the big multi-part harmonies, the build up, the strings (arranged by one John Paul Jones before he started a band called Led Zeppelin) - it's a joy ride.

Here's a fairly recent live version of "She's a Rainbow" by a certain Canadian band featuring a cameo appearance by an older gentleman you might recognize:

Saturday Night Live She's Like a Rainbow from Karen on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

REVIEW: Twerps - Underlay EP

We think it is time to introduce you to some twerps.  But these aren't garden variety, annoying friends of your little brother kind of twerps.  The twerps we're writing about here are the Twerps, one of Melbourne's finest guitar pop bands.  What makes them special?  The easy answer is that this foursome turns out engaging, melodic music that will charm any music fan who likes the sound of The Clean, The Bats or The Go-Betweens.  But for me, another aspect of their appeal is that they are unafraid to take their songs into territory not often trod by guitar bands.  Many songs begin in a familiar, but well executed, lo-fi guitar pop vein, but break out into something unexpected at some point.  Occasionally the unusual dominates from the opening note, as is the case with "Heavy Hands", the opening track of Twerps new EP, Underlay.  So, while this band can jangle with the best of their peers, they seem define themselves in broader, and more adventurous terms.

Twerps are Martin Frawley (guitar, vocals), Julia McFalane (guitar, vocals), Rick Milovanovic (bass, vocals), and Alex Macfarlane (drums, vocals).  They have a couple of past LPs to their credit.  Underlay is their first release with their new US label, Merge Records, while in Australia and New Zealand they remain with Melbourne's Chapter Music.

Underlay consists of eight tracks.  The aforementioned "Heavy Hands" begins proceedings with a thoroughly entertaining sound I can only describe as indie dub Cabaret (and by the way, my kudos to Rick on bass).  "Conditional Report" and "California Clay" steer into more traditional guitar pop expressions, but with different effect.  The former is  a more upbeat tune, while forming a rhythmic bridge to track three.  "California Clay" is a slow paced, almost drone pop track.

A standout is the wonderful fourth track, "Hypocrite", which plays out like a treasured song from The Clean's catalog.  However, at about the 2:45 point the track dissolves into an entertaining sonic experiment that never loses its tether to the original track, but never quite returns either..

Twerps firm command of wistful guitar pop in the manner of The Go-Betweens is on display in the following track, "Raft" --

"Wait Til You Smile" and "Consecutive Seasons" present delightfully executed jangle pop.  The former, sung by Julia, is delicate and hopeful, and repeated listens reveal it to be one of the stronger tracks on the EP.  Pay attention to the final 1:20, which play out like a secret instrumental track.  The latter, voiced by Martin, is weary and jaded, but seems a fitting close.

Listening to Underlay underscores that one of the strengths of this band is that there are no weak links.  Martin and Julia are effective vocalists and their guitars do just what they are needed to do.  Rick's bass provides a dynamic and sturdy background to the songs.  And Alex, recently recruited to play with Twerps as well as his other band, The Stevens, hits the kit with clean, perfectly timed strikes and understated flair.

Merge Records
Chapter Music
Chapter's Bandcamp for Underlay

Bumbershoot Dispatch #2: The Dream Syndicate

The Dream Syndicate, Bumbershoot, Seattle, Aug 31 2014

I commented in my Replacements review earlier this week that reunion shows are "treacherous". The pitfalls are many, usually some guys who ceased enjoying playing together a long time ago giving it another go only because it's a better economic opportunity than any other avenue they have.

But somehow, The Dream Syndicate (formed in 1981) have come back 25 years after calling it quits, and are playing with a great sense of purpose and energy, actually better than ever. The show at Bumbershoot last Sunday, played far too early in the day for their oeuvre, 4:30 in the afternoon, was searing rock'n'roll, urgent, compelling and it left the audience literally slackjawed.

The tone was set at the outset when they played the set's only cover, included on their final album Ghost Stories (1988), a blistering version of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean". From there, not holding back a thing, they went straight to their most well known song "Tell Me When It's Over", for my money one of the very best rock songs of the '80's. And then they continued with most of the better known songs off their first two records The Days of Wine and Roses (1982) and Medicine Show (1984):

Definitely Clean
That's What You Always Say
When You Smile
The Medicine Show
Then She Remembers
John Coltrane Stereo Blues
The Days of Wine and Roses

Steve Wynn, long a favorite here at WYMA, is a first rate songwriter, singer, guitarist, and band leader who has stayed very active since the Dream Syndicate broke up, making great music with Gutterball, Danny and Dusty, The Miracle 3,  and The Baseball Project. So it's not like Wynn needs to go back to the Dream Syndicate to feel relevant or validated. And the Dream Syndicate never reached the popularity they deserved anyway, so there wasn't a whiff of nostalgia here either, just pure rock.

This show was all about the love of the songs themselves and the sheer fun of playing them with the right set of musicians, including the powerful and super tight rhythm section of original drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton who came aboard in 1984. Guitar player Jason Victor is the only new member, but after years of playing with Wynn in the Miracle 3, he is a true Syndicator as he and Wynn's twin guitar attack was on target for the entire set.

While every moment was dead on, "That's What You Always Say" was particularly overpowering, Wynn and Victor pulverizing the guitars chords and Victor tearing up the leads (starts at the 9:22 mark in the full concert video at end of this review - a must listen).

Here's some decent fan-recorded footage of one of my favorite songs of theirs, "Halloween", from a recent show in Denmark:

And they really stretched things out on "John Coltrane Stereo Blues", extending the wild guitar jam for 10+ minutes. 

The Dream Syndicate never caught much of a break in the mid 1980's and didn't seem to be fully understood or embraced by their major record label. And their Velvet Underground-meets-Crazy Horse-meets punk rock guitar mayhem was certainly at odds with the new wave radio hits of the day. Their music is dark, hard, and was even out of step with "the Paisley Underground" movement they were supposedly a part of, having little in common other than California zip codes with the sunny pop music of the Bangles and The Three O'Clock. 

But now in 2014 they carry no such unhelpful expectations. They can and do simply bring the rock. It's now outside of era and commerce and is just a great set of timeless songs, a tight rhythm section, a ferocious twin guitar attack and a winning frontman in Steve Wynn.     

Wynn revealed during the show how he sees the Dream Syndicate, saying “They said we were Paisley, but nah man, we were in Los Angeles getting down to Black Flag. Here’s a punk rock song....”  

Here's a quality recording of a full set from 2013 in their original hometown of Los Angeles, fairly similar to what I saw at Bumbershoot: 

It is the official position of the WYMA blog (Incorporated) that the Dream Syndicate should keep touring, maybe even write some new songs and record again. This band is too powerful, too good, far too satisfying to go away.

Thanks to fan Paul Austin from Seattle, who was kind enough to let WYMA use the terrific photo at the top above which he took at the show.  And we'll leave you with another of Paul's photos from Bumbershoot:

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

REVIEW - Bumbershoot Dispatch #1: The Replacements

First a few words on Bumbershoot itself. Now four decades in, held over Labor Day weekend on the grounds of Seattle Center, this festival is well worth a trip to one of America's finest cities. Four high quality music stages, easy to get around, plus indoor venues for comedy shows, as well as art and various miscellaneous entertainment including family-friendly offerings. And without camping, the chucklehead factor is low as music fests go. And you see a wide variety of ages, parents with kids, aging rockers, hordes of high schoolers, urban hipsters, everything. They don't oversell the number of tickets and thus provide a high quality user experience. Plus the grounds are permanent and set up for crowds so there are actual and plentiful bathrooms, water fountains, plazas, gardens etc. My only possible complaint is the food, which is adequate but not what a foodie, NW farm-to-table city is capable of, though I suspect the Bumbershoot organizers have to take the permanent vendors and have no control of this facet.

Paul Westerberg, Seattle Bumbershoot, Aug 31 2014
Okay, on to the 'Mats. First let's be clear -- I love the Replacements, worship their catalogue, saw them dozens of times in their prime.  I didn't think they'd reunite or I'd ever see them again, so to say I was primed for this show would be an understatement. But reunion shows are treacherous, especially with just 2 of 4 members still active, though when you're talking about Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson, that half is still quite tantalizing. Plus, this is the Replacements after all, so a messy train wreck is always possible.

But they were fantastic. Tight enough to be musically satisfying, lovably sloppy enough to still be a genuine Replacements experience, complete with dropped microphones, flubbed lyrics, and impromptu covers (Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" (22 seconds of which is captured here) , local boy Jimi Hendrix' "Third Stone From the Sun" and the Jackson Fives' "I Want You Back").

Westerberg's voice was terrific. Tommy is still the irascible punk ("We don't do good playing in the daylight; we're a bar band"). While their self-depreciative underdog personality is intact, they now have a command on the power and depth of their remarkable catalogue. The set was particularly well paced.  Example: Stadium rock "Valentine" followed by crowd pleasing country-flavored singalong "Waitress in the Sky", then right into the punk speed burner "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out".  Who other than the 'Mats can pull that off with such ease? If you didn't know better, you might call these guys savvy, mature pros. I wouldn't have either expected or changed a thing about this varied set list, chock full of surprises, the hits, and a lot of the early punkish Twin Tone material:

Favorite Thing
Takin a Ride
I'm in Trouble
Don't Ask Why
I'll Be You
Waitress in the Sky
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out / Third Stone From the Sun
Take Me Down to the Hospital
I Want You Back
Nowhere Is My Home
Color Me Impressed
Achin' To Be
Kiss Me on the Bus
I Will Dare
Love You in the Fall (Westerberg solo song)
White and Lazy
Love You Till Friday/Maybellene
Can't Hardly Wait
Bastards of Young
Left Of The Dial
Alex Chilton

The band now includes drummer Josh Freese (The Vandals, Devo etc.) who was rock steady all night, and guitarist Dave Minehan replacing Slim Dunlap who suffered a very serious stroke. Minehan has played in Westerberg's solo band and was very comfortable in his role, muscular and inventive, and most importantly, tackling the old songs with Bob Stinson abandon and replicating Bob's sound.  Replacing Bob was a tall order and I always respected Dunlap wanting to be his own guy stylistically.  But it was damn good to hear Minehan ripping it up on an old chesnut like "Take Me Down To the Hospital".

I was struck by the size, varied age and devotion of the crowd, many of whom from my anecdotal contact with a sampling, seemed like me to have traveled quite a distance to see their heroes once again. I was tickled to see the teenage couple next to me singing along to every word of "Androgynous".

Nothing much has been posted from Bumbershoot yet, but here's a very recent video with decent sound quality that gives you a good idea of what it was like Sunday night. "Takin a Ride":

And when the 'Mats unleashed their heavy artillery to close the show with the "hits" -- "Can't Hardly Wait", "Bastards of Young", "Left of the Dial" and "Alex Chilton" -- you realize why some like me consider them one of the very best rock'n'roll bands of all time. Our older brothers were back at home with their Beatles and their Stones, but we had the scrappy Replacements, who knew exactly what it meant to feel like an outsider at school, how disappointing growing up could be, and how much we adored the radio hits we all grew up on, never too cool to actually love "I Want You Back".

We'll leave you with a fun recent live recording of "Left of the Dial", one of my favorite songs of all time, giving you a sense of exactly the experience I had Sunday --  Tommy cracking wise, the crowd singing, the mighty Replacements ripping it up:

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"Party of the Mind" from Robert Scott, from the Adrian Borland tribute album

Adrian Borland was one of the most intriguing figures of London's punk era of the late '70s.  Literary, musically gifted, and intense, he created excellent punk and post punk music that never attained the commercial success it deserved.  His bands included The Outsiders and the Sound, and he released solo projects with various collaborators.  The excellent little Canadian label The Beautiful Music soon will be releasing There Must Be A Hole In Your Memory, a tribute to the music of the Sound and Adrian Borland.  All tracks on the album are taken from releases by the Sound or Adrian Borland, except for two tracks that are found on releases by other bands that included Borland.

I may have more on this project in the near future, but I'd like to share one of the tracks with you because if the rest of the album is as good as this, it will be worth including in your collection.  The track is "Party of the Mind", and it is performed by the inimitable Robert Scott, frontman of The Bats, bass player for The Clean, and a solo artist as well.

The list of artists and songs is below:
1. Typwrtr – Hothouse
2. Easy – Counting The Days
3. Spasmodique – Silent Air
4. 1000 Mexicans – Night Cascade 
5. Hearts Fail – Monument
6. Elliot Wheeler & Friends – Winter
7. Roy Moller – I Can’t Escape Myself
8. Robert Scott – Party Of The Mind
9. Dalmasy – Iron Years
10. Changing Gears – Cinematic *
11. The Social Icons – Total Recall
12. Last Burning Embers – Heyday
13. The Last Hour – Winning
14. Great Dynamo – Silent Air (V2)
15. Black Wings – Judgement
16. Shakespeare & The Bible – Dead Guitars 
17. Temporary Thing – Missiles