Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy feature

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy performs Saturday at Soboba Casino in San Jacinto; Sunday at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank; Oct. 23 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach

Glen Marhevka was in junior high school when he had a musical epiphany of sorts at Disneyland’s Carnation Plaza bandstand.

That was where the future trumpeter for Big Bad Voodoo Daddy first witnessed legendary jazz man Cab Calloway in concert.

“This was the early ‘80s. Calloway had the whole big band with him and I was blown away,” recalled Marhevka from a tour stop in Peakskill, N.Y. “I was just starting to play trumpet at that time and I was amazed. I had no idea who he was when I got there. I could’ve gone on all the rides, but I sat there and watched both his sets that day.”

Flash forward a few decades and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy has paid tribute to the King of Hi-De-Ho with the new album “How Big Can You Get?” After members of the L.A.-based contemporary swing group started sifting through Calloway material in preparation, they gained a new respect for it all.

“Some recordings aren’t that great a quality, so until you really sit down and analyze them, you might not pay attention to everything that’s involved,” Marhevka explained. “If you listen to those arrangements and know when they were recorded, (you realize) they were pretty intricate for the time. It was a crossover from the cornier big band stuff, moving into a little more sophisticated jazz.”

Recorded at the legendary Capitol Records Studios in Hollywood (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin) on vintage microphones and equipment, the septet “didn’t want to do every tune that you’d typically hear from Calloway” on the tribute collection. “We obviously had to do (longtime BBVD live staple) ‘Minnie the Moocher’ because that’s a signature song and ‘The Jumpin’ Jive,’ which is popular. The other tunes are more obscure. We tried to mix it up a little bit.”

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy hopes to simultaneously spotlight Calloway’s successful music from the 1930s and 40s and restore a credibility factor often missing during those eras. Marhevka described Cab as a true showman – “this larger than life character, who was wild and crazy onstage…he encompassed it all. Some of his contemporaries didn’t want to cross those boundaries much, because they didn’t have the same qualities.”

Initially formed in Ventura by singer/guitarist Scotty Morris and drummer Kurt Sodergren in 1989, BBVD’s current incarnation gelled a few years later. Steady gigging through the West Coast and a weekly residency at L.A.’s The Derby helped draw a large following.

Doug Liman’s 1996 indie flick “Swingers” starring Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, about the lounge lifestyle, was shot at the nightclub and prominently featured two of the band’s tunes. “You & Me and the Bottle Makes Three (Tonight)” became a modern rock radio hit. Soon after, BBVD led the modern swing revival with similar groups sprouting up right and left.

“All the sudden, this independent film with all our friends came out, it took off and before you knew it, everything snowballed,” said Marhevka. By 1999, BBVD had a couple platinum CDs to their credit and played the Super Bowl XXIII half-time show. Earlier this year, the band was seen on ABC-TV reality show “Dancing with the Stars.”

Now, according to the trumpeter, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is the only band that has consistently toured and explored the genre. Swing/big band music was never a fad for these guys. “It’s what we wanted to do from the get-go. Everybody is still committed 110 percent. That’s why we’ve been able to keep the band together so long with all the same guys - we all love what we’re doing…we just kept plowing our course.”

David Bowie DVD review

David Bowie
VH1 Storytellers
(Virgin/MTV Networks)

In the opening moments of this VH1 Storytellers episode, David Bowie playfully says, “there’s so many stories I could tell you…oh, you don’t know the half of it!” Obviously the more hedonistic details from his early-to-mid ‘70s period wouldn’t have been appropriate for the program. But the British rock legend relates just enough tidbits about songs from throughout his career to fascinate diehard fans. Filmed exactly a decade ago (August 1999), it finds a youthful-looking and relaxed Bowie fronting a top-notch seven piece band.

Executive producer Bill Flanagan writes in the liner notes that upon seeing a rehearsal with only a couple hits in the set, he got worried and was reassured by Bowie that everything would work out fine. The 64-minute DVD (eight televised and four unaired performances) has four selections from the austere “Hours” album released that fall (the accompanying CD/digital audio version here is just the show portion).

A sweeping, piano-led “Life on Mars?” includes a funny anecdote about Barbara Streisand’s cover version, Bowie describes meeting T-Rex’s Marc Bolan on “Rebel Rebel” (sadly cut off by the artist after a verse/chorus) and his exploits in Berlin with Iggy Pop during “China Girl.” Mike Garson does some gorgeous ivory tickling during the latter. An ebullient “Drive In Saturday,” from 1973’s Aladdin Sane, is elevated by Holly Palmer’s doo-wop backing vocals and is worth the purchase price alone.

Pat Benatar, Blondie concert review

Photo by Paul Bersebach, the Orange County Register
A version of my review originally appeared in the Register

Pat Benatar, Blondie, The Romantics
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
July 26

Two street smart rock gals, who launched their music careers a few years apart in New York City during the ‘70s, went head to head in concert for the first time on Sunday night. But only one emerged the victor.

Blondie – led by Deborah Harry – emerged from the punk scene and found mainstream success amid the burgeoning New Wave era. The band fell apart in 1982, but half the members reunited for 1999’s uneven “No Exit” album and scored a No. 1 single in England with “Maria.” They put out “The Curse of Blondie” four years later and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The more successful of the pair was Pat Benatar. She initially delved in hard rock, moved into pop territory and saw her career rise simultaneously with a nascent MTV (more on that later). After notching more than a dozen top 40 hits throughout the ‘80s, Benatar settled into domestic life with band mate husband Neil Giraldo and did albums and tours sporadically over the next two decades.

This Costa Mesa gig had the loudest volume level among the five fair shows I’ve attended so far (Benatar’s three-piece group used six large amplifiers). Due to a third act (The Romantics) serving as opener, it also lasted the longest, wrapping up at 10:30 p.m.

Benatar kicked off the 65-minute, 11-song performance, appropriately enough, with “All Fired Up.” Giraldo strolled onstage and hammered away at electric guitar. Fashioning himself in the Eddie Van Halen mold, he tends to showboat a little too much, sometime overshadowing the wife – the person who everyone came to see. Apparently Benatar has no problem with it: the shows are co-billed and she eagerly gets out of it his way during flashy solos (“Shadows of the Night,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”).

In sharp contrast to Harry, Benatar provided anecdotes for many tunes. She explained that “You Better Run” was the second music video to air on MTV (and since the first one was techno-pop group The Buggles, Giraldo was the first guitarist to appear on the cable channel). The galloping song sounded monstrous; the singer’s scratchy wail, never better. Equally powerful was “Invincible,” where her gritty delivery rose above the metallic fray. A percolating “Love is a Battlefield” was also among several strong standouts.

Perched on stools, the music couple relayed how they first met and played together before “We Belong.” Giraldo started a drum machine and played acoustic guitar on the warm and inviting, sway-worthy tune. Benatar gave her usual spiel about wanting to drop one of her biggest chart hits from the set and hating a particular line that the audience should sing. Giraldo said if there were any “Guitar Hero” enthusiasts present, they should keep a close eye on him so they really learn how to play it. The selection? “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” The band played it with authority.

Haunting, slow build rocker “Hell is For Children,” inspired by a newspaper article on child abuse, saw Giraldo move from piano to guitar. Benatar dedicated it to all kids at risk. Time and again, Benatar impressively nailed the quasi-operatic vocal trills recorded a quarter century ago. The encore section didn’t slacken the pace, either as “Promises in the Dark” and “Heartbreaker” kept the intensity level high. Overall, a knockout punch.

Blondie’s hour-long, 13-song set had more valleys than peaks. Performing in front of a graffiti collage backdrop, they opened with a lumbering “Call Me,” where Harry’s soft vocals were barely decipherable. A tight “Hanging on the Telephone” snapped things back into place. Then Blondie immediately lost the crowd’s attention by playing the frothy “Two Times Blue,” a minor dance club hit from Harry’s middling 2007 solo effort “Necessary Evil.”

Harry, now 64, sported sunglasses and was casually dressed in a black skirt, tank top and sneakers. She often used a spoken/sung approach (“Picture This”) or simply held back (“Atomic”) to hit the higher notes, with occasional background help from lead guitarist Paul Carbonara and a new young keyboardist.

Founding guitarist and co-songwriter Chris Stein barely moved onstage and left all the heavy work to Carbonara (he and bassist Leigh Foxx have now been in the band longer than the original incarnation). Amazing drummer Clem Burke, the other founder, is still the saving grace of Blondie. His precision beats and stick twirls were usually more interesting to watch than Harry’s awkward stage moves (30+ years on, you’d think she’d be comfortable by now) and forced audience interaction.

“The Tide is High,” with a spacey new bridge, pointless bass solo, a bit of the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and Harry’s added rap, was a train wreck. “You’re Too Hot,” a sort of punkish second track inexplicably pulled off “Evil,” proved dreadful. The disjointedness continued on “Rapture.” Harry sang while staring down at the stage and did the rap part slower than usual. The song came to a complete stop twice: first when Stein played a bluesy solo and then Harry updated a second rap verse. The confused crowd did not know when to applaud.

Toward the end, Blondie partially rebounded on a frantic “One Way or Another” (augmented by loud audience sing along; Harry’s scatting was unfortunate). The solid extended encore of “Heart of Glass” turned the Pac Amp into a dance floor, especially when it segued into a memorably lush take on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Detroit’s The Romantics got the joint jumping early with a raucous half hour set revolving around its early ‘80s heyday. Clad in sharp black attire, front man Wally Palmer and two other original members (plus an animated drummer, whose chair was once occupied by Blondie’s Burke) started with a blazing “Rock You Up,” from 1983’s “In Heat.”

Wisely abandoning the new wave studio sheen, the tunes benefited from a garage rock vibe live – especially “Talking in Your Sleep” and the Ray Davies-penned “She’s Got Everything.” A bluesy “61/49,” the title track to 2003’s excellent comeback album, showed the guys are still making vital music. The energetic “What I Like About You” saw The Romantics leave on a high note.

Fish Fest concert review

Photo by Kelly A. Swift/For the Orange County Register

A version of my review appeared in the OC Register

Fish Fest
Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine
July 25

A little humor goes a long way – especially during an event where most of the music has a serious message.

Halfway through his Fish Fest set on Saturday, Matthew West freestyled a short tune on his acoustic guitar, a la Jason Mraz, about playing in SoCal and withstanding the afternoon heat. Later in the evening, Hawk Nelson would also do an impromptu number – far less successfully – about the joys of drinking Diet Mountain Dew soda.

Fish Fest, the annual concert put on by local Contemporary Christian Music station KFSH/95.9 FM (“The Fish”) and Transparent Productions, returned to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine. A dozen acts performed on three stages over the course of seven hours. Proceeds benefited Compassion International, an organization that sponsors impoverished children in Third World countries.

Upon entering the venue and perusing the various vendor booths, I came across a cool silent auction that comprised a couple dozen guitars and CD plaques signed by various Christian acts. All the money raised there was earmarked for five ministries, including foundations set up by headliner MercyMe, Third Day, Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith.

A banner over the main stage sported the radio station’s logo and slogan: “Safe for the whole family.” It’s been awhile since I saw so many parents and kids at a pop/rock show. Surely, the low dough ticket price for most seats ($9.59) was an enticement and helped fill the place. Little ones even had a section with inflated bouncers to keep themselves busy. Unlike most summer concerts at Verizon, there was a mist tent, extra tables and plenty of shade.

NeedToBreathe was a revelation – I’m not talking scripture here - on the main stage. Led by brothers Bo and Bear Rinehart, the rootsy alt-rock band from Possum Kingdom, S.C. often recalled Kings of Leon and Black Crowes during an invigorating 35-minute performance.

They opened to a still-arriving audience with the feisty banjo and harmonica-laden “Outsiders,” the title track from the third major label album (due in stores next month). Everything off 2007 release “The Heat” - was mesmerizing, including the chiming guitars and supple group harmonies on “Streets of Gold,” the latter-day U2-styled “Signature of Divine (Yahweh),” mainstream AAA radio hit “More Time” and soulful “Washed by the Water,” where singer/guitarist Bear gave a nod to John Fogerty and sang a line from “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” Can’t wait to hear the rest of the new stuff and see a complete gig by these guys.

For the past three months, West has dominated the top spot on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart with stirring ballad “The Motions,” which is taken from last year’s “Something to Say.” Prior to closing with the track on Saturday, he worked both sides of the stage and proved he was a master at audience interaction at every turn. The uplifting “More” (a mega Christian radio hit from 2004) led to a spiritual chant. West appeared to text or tweet while singing the opening verse – now that’s multi-tasking! He did impressive rapid-fire vocals for the ebullient pop of “Next Thing You Know” and told an inspiring story about performing at a prison before ultra-dramatic “Only Grace,” which segued into an “Amazing Grace” singalong.

This Beautiful Republic, which would slot in well at the Warped Tour, easily won over a gaggle of teens at the Edge Stage (right before dusk, the alt-metal sounds of RED got an equally enthusiastic response). The successful screamo band delivered punishing rhythms and searing guitar work on “Surrender Saved My Life” and blistering radio fave “No Turning Back,” then turned things down to a medium boil during a surprising cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

San Diego singer/songwriter Phil Wickham is a regular presence at SoCal church events. Like West, MercyMe and a few others, he spent a major chunk of time onstage sermonizing. The diminutive Wickham and his band opened with song featuring a gorgeous wash of atmospheric guitars/keyboards, then sang with a quavering voice and did expressive gestures on “Desire” and “Heaven & Earth.” The audience joined him when words were displayed on the screens.

Since the mid-1990s, Jars of Clay has amassed multiple Dove and Grammy Awards and sold millions of albums. Following top 40 single hit “Flood” in 1996, the pop/rock group found support at a variety of secular radio formats. On 2006’s “Good Monsters,” the quartet frequently delved into edgier sonic terrain with winning results. Eighth studio album “The Long Fall Back to Earth” finds them experimenting further, clearly influenced by electronic-based acts like Postal Service and Depeche Mode.

Several of the new tracks comprised their too-short 35-minute Verizon set, including the intriguing “Weapons” (key line: “lay your weapons down/there are no enemies in front of you”), current top 10 charter “Two Hands,” synth-heavy, upbeat “Don’t Stop” and new wave-ish “Closer” (keyboard bits were triggered; one member appeared to be missing).

Despite a muddy sound mix, frontman Dan Haseltine (pictured, above) and company persevered. He was all over the stage, kneeling at times and engaging the crowd. For those who hadn’t seen JOC in awhile, it was a surprise to hear Haseltine delivering such muscular vocals. Even more of an eye-opener was the totally reinvented and hard rocking “Flood,” complete with vocoder. The band only had time to squeeze one more old fave in (“Love Song for a Savior”). Fans went mad for it all.

You’d think Hawk Nelson was headlining Fish Fest from the massive teen crowd watching and all the bells and whistles on the Edge Stage (strobes, smoke plumes). The young Canadian punk/pop band is akin to Green Day, though not as lyrically or musically mature. Still, the football chant-styled “Bring ‘Em Out,” “Letters to the President” (about social issues), power ballad “Everything You Ever Wanted” and high energy “Friend Like That” were thoroughly enjoyable and prompted pogoing galore.

MercyMe has an All American Band appeal, not unlike matchbox 20 or Rascal Flatts. The popular and acclaimed Texas sextet put out “10” earlier this year, which commemorates all their No. 1 singles to date on the Christian radio charts. The 65-minute performance kicked off with the danceable “Time Has Come.” Far more impressive live than the CDs or videos would indicate, affable leader Bart Millard made comical asides and introduced each song.

Highlights included the strident, vaguely psychedelic rock of “So Long Self,” a faithful take on Tom Petty’s “I Wont Back Down,” breezy “Alright” (with a snippet of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”), understated folk of “Finally Home” (dedicated to those who have served in our armed services; images of veterans returning from duty played on the stage backdrop) and highly emotional signature song “I Can Only Imagine.” Concertgoers (at this point, Verizon was three-quarters full) held their arms aloft in praise throughout MercyMe and got to do a second singalong of “Amazing Grace.”

B-52s concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register

The B-52s, The 88
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
July 19

When the B-52s did big hit “Love Shack” with Sugarland at the recent CMT Music Awards, it wasn’t as big of a stretch as it seemed. Both acts hail from Georgia and Sugarland often pulls out genre-hopping covers live. Still, the much buzzed about TV appearance together exemplified how much widespread appeal the B52s have these days.

That was definitely in full display at the Pacific Amphitheatre. The crowd makeup was the most varied I’ve seen so far during the OC Super Fair concert series, ranging from gray-haired grandparents and teenagers to middle-aged couples in Hawaiian shirts and gay men dancing up a storm. Some even used plastic bubble guns. Before the concert started, a young lady in a pink dress strolled the concourse area strumming a ukulele, while two women sporting straw hats with bright colored feathers passed by.

Despite a wacky self-titled 1979 debut that found favor at underground dance clubs and college radio and a couple albums that eventually went gold, the unique new wave group didn’t truly find mainstream success until the arrival of Cosmic Thing a decade later. It was certified double-platinum and spawned a pair of top 5 pop singles.

Original co-lead singer Cindy Wilson left soon after, but returned for a 1998 retrospective and subsequent tours. Last year, the B-52s put out Funplex, their first full-length studio effort in 16 years. A fine return-to-form, it mixes modern electronic sounds, retro/surf rock, silly lyrics and the famous high flying vocals of Wilson and Kate Pierson, punctuated by Fred Schneider’s deadpan delivery.

Performing in front of a trippy backdrop design and swirling light pattern, the B-52s kicked off the 75-minute Costa Mesa gig with a spacey “Pump,” the first of five solid Funplex tracks.

Guitarist Keith Strickland led the way with rollicking licks, backed by longtime drummer Sterling Campbell, bassist Tracy Wormworth and an auxiliary musician. Lighthearted sexual innuendo is ingrained in many B-52’s songs. New ones like the chunky pop/rocker “Ultraviolet” and rave-worthy “Love in the Year 3000” hit this point home onstage with the three singers’ playful interplay.

Wilson demonstrated her rhythmic prowess on tom toms periodically throughout the evening; Pierson did minimal work on keyboards (she had problems every time a roadie brought out the instrument). The punkish “Private Idaho,” an early highlight, saw Wilson doing The Swim dance as Pierson trilled like a bird. Schneider updated and personalized some lyrics (a frantic “Strobe Light,” where the gals’ intertwined pipes were crystalline as ever; the strangely alluring “Quiche Lorraine,” where he sang, “It’s a dreary Costa Mesa day”).

The excitement level was ratcheted up several notches during harmonious audience sing along “Roam.” Schneider, who had been offstage at the time, suddenly ran onstage wearing a fluorescent blue wig for the festive “Party out of Bounds.” Entering the home stretch, “Love Shack” was a hoot. Strickland and Wormworth engaged in a short, groovy solo and there was an exaggerated pause so everyone could help Wilson with her “tin roof, busted” line.

Then it was time to step into the “Twilight Zone” for the standard encore: an eerie “Planet Claire” and always entertaining “Rock Lobster” (the latter brings me back to junior high roller rink parties when the tune was popular). Amazingly, Pierson, 61 and Wilson, 52, can still nail those odd animal sounds and squeals.

L.A. band The 88 - whose power pop/rock music has been ubiquitous on dozens of TV shows, commercials and movies over the past five years - opened with a satisfying half-hour set. A still-arriving crowd was indifferent to the quintet’s finely-crafted tunes, but singer/guitarist Keith Slettedahl and animated keyboardist played them with finesse. Standouts included the Supergrass-styled intensity of “Go Go Go,” “Coming Home” and raucous “Sons and Daughters,” from 2008 major label bow No Only…But Also.

Tears for Fears concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register

Tears for Fears
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
July 17

It pays to arrive on time.

Concertgoers who actually read the unusual notation on their tickets: starts promptly at 8 p.m. were surely glad to be seated then.

But a few couples I saw casually stroll into the Pacific Amphitheatre late were probably kicking themselves after discovering that Tears for Fears opened the 90-minute gig with 1985 chart topper, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and two songs later did its next biggest hit, “Sowing the Seeds of Love.”

Early in the evening, Tears for Fears singer/guitarist and chief sonic architect Roland Orzabal said, “it’s good to be back in the O.C.,” before recalling a beautiful Costa Mesa gig two years ago that was “etched in my mind forever.” Then he mentioned the fair’s strict curfew as the audience booed loudly. “We will be rushing through the set. We even rehearsed some speed metal versions of our hits.” Only half the people seemed to get the joke.

The show’s parameters were puzzling since other acts performing at the Pac Amp last week started later and ended past 10. Why couldn’t Tears for Fears simply play for two hours? Regardless, “Rule the World” – a soaring, feel good song perfect for summertime listening – felt oddly subdued.

Initially, the British synth-pop duo crafted somber tunes based upon primal scream therapy for 1983 debut album The Hurting. By the time Songs From the Big Chair came along two years later and sold millions, Orzabal and singer/bassist Curt Smith’s worldview and stylistic scope had expanded considerably. Following a bitter split in the early ‘90s, Orzabal continued trading under the band name for half a decade.

The pair finally reunited for 2004’s Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, a thoroughly enjoyable slice of Beatlesque chamber pop. Four of those tracks were featured among the 17-song set. The initial one, “Secret World,” saw Orzabal flashing a wide toothy grin as he sang a bit of Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Let ‘em In,” the other band members contributed high harmonies and keyboardist Doug Petty triggered the sweeping orchestral grandeur. Backing singer Michael Wainwright appeared during “Sowing,” another sluggish hit that seemed to have a slowed down tempo.

Smith prefaced “Mad World” with an anecdote about playing the venue 24 years ago. Without mentioning Gary Jules or “American Idol” runner-up Adam Lambert’s moody and wildly popular cover versions, he explained, “we haven’t done it the original way in quite awhile” (indeed, the band did it Jules style at KROQ Inland Invasion ’04). Suddenly those familiar clanging synth sounds and circuitous drum work led the way.

Diehard TFF enthusiasts were treated to a hushed, enthralling “Memories Fade” from The Hurting. Later, Smith used a Hofner bass during the breezy pop of “Floating Down the River” (a live favorite since 2006). Orzabal described it as making the least sense of all the songs he’d written (uh, I wouldn’t admit it). Alluding to the fair, he said, “it has a kernel of inescapable truth – hot dogs are better than pizza.”

The ambitious title track to “Happy Ending” and it’s “Sgt. Pepper”-styled vibe got a rousing crowd response. Then came a big surprise. Orzabal admitted having to read the words to a cover song they just started doing a few days before, “by someone who recently passed away.” Softly strumming an electric guitar, the group unobtrusively backed him on a mournful, breathtaking version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” that could’ve easily been a Hurting outtake. Everyone went wild.

After the audience endured a six-song stretch minus old radio faves, their patience was rewarded on the back end with a strong “Pale Shelter,” stomping “Break it Down Again” and less bombastic than usual “Head Over Heels.” Wainwright assumed Oleta Adams’ duet singing role during a warm and inviting “Woman in Chains.” Finally, the musicians’ young children were paraded onstage for the extended chanting closer, “Shout.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dimishing CD retail floor space

With so many record store chains falling by the wayside, those of us who prefer to buy actual CDs at actual retail establishments are often forced to go to Best Buy or Wal Mart.

That's fine for high profile new releases like Dave Matthews Band, but not if you're looking for deep catalog. The other day I was looking for a CD by an obscure '80s punk band. I called the two indie stores in the area and neither had any titles.

I decided to take a chance and look in Best Buy. Of course they didn't have it, but something else was even more distressing: they followed Wal Mart's lead and further decreased their CD space, yet increased the Latin section among what was left.

Duran Duran concert review

I happened to get into Duran Duran's sold out Pacific Amphitheatre show last Saturday at the last minute.

As a diehard fan, I loved hearing some rarities that they haven't done in years or ever: "Do You Believe in Shame" from "Big Thing," part of Chic's "Le Freak" (a major formative influence on the band), "Hold Back the Rain," a revamped version of "A View to A Kill" with a "Goldfinger"-type theme intro and the opening verses done slowly, Vegas crooner style, before jumping into the normal tempo.

Then there was "Election Day" by Arcadia - the side project singer Simon LeBon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor did in the mid-80s while bassist John Taylor and ex-guitarist Andy Taylor enjoyed the much more commercially successful Power Station. A lot of concertgoers looked puzzled when the song was played, but it was actually a minor hit.

LeBon was sick and John Taylor didn't seem to be into the performance as much as usual (except for "Planet Earth" at the end), so it detracted a bit from the usual high energy vibe.

I wish they'd choose another song from the covers disc "Thank You" besides Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" too. Since I've seen them about 18 times over 20 years, I really didn't mind the omission of "Hungry Like the Wolf" from the setlist, but I'm sure quite a few ladies were upset.

More angry were people watching the big screens from the terrace section. The inept cameraman focused solely on LeBon all night, leaving John, Nick and Roger devotees to either use their binoculars or watch The Simon Show (not a great thing this evening as he went to the side of the drum riser between songs to hack phlem).

It's still hard not to miss the amazing guitar playing and backing vocals of original Andy Taylor, who was part of the reunion and comeback album "Astronaut." Veteran session player Dom Brown is an able replacement. But since he's been touring with Duran for a year or so now, he should be far more mobile on stage.

Rhett Miller album review

Rhett Miller
Rhett Miller
(Shout! Factory)

When a singer goes the eponymously titled route several albums in, it usually implies some artistic statement or new beginning. For Old 97’s firebrand Rhett Miller, the former is true. Influenced by the deaths of his grandmother and literary idol David Foster Wallace, this one has a darker adult rock scope than the charming “Gershwin-meets-T Rex” spirit and winsome power pop heard on his previous solo effort, The Believer.

Miller initially planned an acoustic approach — as evidenced by the stark and unobtrusive instrumentation coloring half the tracks and hushed vocals. Fortunately, things don’t get too bleak and Miller’s knack for lyrical alliteration pokes through in strategic places (“I Need to Know Where I Stand,” “Lashes,” “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore”). Barnburner “Happy Birthday, Don’t Die,” a strange sci-fi tale about a woman buried in the catacombs of a distant planet who celebrates her 100th year by passing away, is a highlight; same goes for the wide-eyed Buddy Holly-styled gallop/harmonies in “If It’s Not Love.”

The relaxed, countrified “Another Girlfriend” dates back a decade (Miller unsuccessfully lobbied to get it placed on several Old 97’s discs) and contains this humorous couplet: “last thing I need is another girlfriend/two’s enough for me and you would make three.” Miller does an adept job at leavening the light and dark.

Live Nation tickets

On Sunday, when I attended the 311 show in Irvine, it was the first time I had to deal with Live Nation's tickets, as opposed to those printed by Ticketmaster. Tell me, could the size be any more awkward? For starters, I was irritated that they were much larger than TM's and the dollar bills in my wallet. I had to fold the ticket in half, then horizontally just to get it to fit.

I know European concert tickets have always been large, but at least they tend to have cool pictures of the band or venue.

While I'm on the subject of Live Nation, I also find their website - which partner Ticketmaster seems to direct you to 75% of the time - hardly user-friendly.

Yet another reason why I hope the proposed merger doesn't go through.

311/Ziggy Marley concert review

A version of my review appeared on last Monday.

311, Ziggy Marley
Where: Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine
When: July 12
Next: Marley does an in-store performance/signing for kids album “B is for Bob,” 1 p.m. July 25, Barnes & Noble, Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica

Talk about dichotomies.

311 returned to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Sunday night and concluded its annual summer Unity tour, but not everyone had the spirit of togetherness in mind. Right before the show started, some wasted male lunkheads in the orchestra section nearly got into a fight. After security personnel intervened, they resisted and were ejected.

I’m surprised another altercation didn’t ensue when other people got too carried away with their wild dances to 311 music. Maybe it’s the band’s rap-rock roots, which always seems to attract a fan element lacking common sense.

Still an extremely popular live attraction after nearly two decades together, the eclectic Omaha-bred, L.A.-based quintet has been a mainstay on alternative radio pretty much since its inception. While the past few studio releases haven’t sold quite as well as their ‘90s predecessors, the new album “Uplifter” debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 – 311’s highest chart debut to date. First single “Hey You” went top 10 on the modern rock tally, aided by support from KROQ.

“Uplifter,” produced by Bob Rock (Metallica), combines a heavy guitar/drum sound with pop harmonies and 311’s trademark mélange of reggae/funk/hip hop to fine effect. All those elements were represented during a vigorous, well-paced 100-minute show in Irvine. The venue was about three-quarters full.

The band opened, appropriately enough, with “Never Ending Summer,” the first of eight “Uplifter” tunes performed. Frontman Nick Hexum, sporting a punkish ‘do and clad entirely in white, wielded a flying V electric guitar and sang about the fun of touring alongside good friends.

In a recent interview, Hexum said he and guitarist Tim Mahoney took lessons to sharpen their skills during the four-year gap between albums. A newfound dexterity was noticeable, especially on new songs “Something Out of Nothing” and “India Ink.”

SA Martinez, Hexum’s vocal foil, constantly veered from scratching at the turntables to rocking the mic and lock stepping around the stage. The pair were a bundle of energy all night, especially amid intense hits like “Beautiful Disaster,” “All Mixed Up” - where the crowd pogoed along - and “Creatures (For a While).” Mahoney’s shimmering work on the laid back “Amber” and “Beyond the Gray Sky” was simply gorgeous. The latter found the audience raising their lighters aloft (no shortage of Bics here, folks).

If you’ve seen 311 on previous tours, drummer Chad Sexton’s extended spotlight and the guys’ percussion display on “Applied Science” is now old hat. And we could do without P-Nut’s bass solo before “What Was I Thinking?"

For the encores, the group went back to the beginning for the frenetic “Omaha Stylee,” a ‘90s medley and “Down.”

“We’re all one big family,” said a jubilant Ziggy Marley, before launching a warm, enticing and thought-provoking hour-long set at dusk. With his two adorable young children in tow (singing, playing drums), a tight eight piece band and the word “Love” spelled out above the stage, Marley did the acoustic folk title track to his new kids album “Family Time.”

That fun collection - which features contributions by Paul Simon, Jack Johnson and Willie Nelson - is a companion to another, “B is for Bob,” where Ziggy reimagined his famous father’s tunes for little tykes with different instrumentation.

Playing an electric guitar in bright Jamaican colors, Marley, at 41, a dead ringer for pa these days, frequently sang with eyes closed and immersed himself in the rapturous rhythms. The singer provided pointed introductions to songs like the socially conscious “Justice,” “Still the Storms” – among five culled from 2007’s Grammy-winning “Love is My Religion” - and Bob’s “Africa Unite.” Other standouts included the infectious Melody Makers hit “Look Who’s Dancing” and more Bob compositions, “Lively Up Yourself” and “Is This Love?”

Heart concert review

A version of my review appeared in the Orange County Register on July 13

Where: Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
When: July 10
Next: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 23 with The Bangles, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, $29.50-$69.50, on sale now

Classic rock radio enthusiasts in the know got an extended old school fix on Friday. For starters, L.A. station The Sound/100.3 FM replicated the long missed KMET FM era with several original deejays. Then Heart - a format mainstay from the mid-‘70s onward - launched the OC Super Fair’s concert series with a mostly solid 85-minute performance.

One of the first female fronted hard rock acts to find mainstream success, Heart racked up nearly two dozen top 40 pop hits and seven platinum-selling albums during its 1976-1993 heyday.

In recent years, the Seattle-reared group has enjoyed a newfound popularity among young music fans, thanks to the “Guitar Hero” videogames and frequent spotlights on “American Idol” (who can forget Carrie Underwood’s powerful rendition of “Alone” in Season 4?). A children's storybook and CD based on 1978’s “Dog & Butterfly” is due later this year.

Despite an unusually long line to enter the Pacific Amphitheatre from inside the fairgrounds (it stretched all the way to the end of Park Plaza), the venue was packed by the time sisters Ann & Nancy Wilson took the stage with their latest incarnation of Heart. Once that galloping, instantly recognizable electric guitar riff intro to “Barracuda” started the 15-song set, the crowd was immediately on its feet.

Wisely stripping away a bit of the Eighties studio production gloss, “Never” featured Nancy on acoustic guitar and harmonica. She and lead singer Ann, along with keyboardist Debbie Shair, nailed the high flying harmonies. The same held true on a stark, gorgeous “These Dreams” and ultra-dramatic “Alone” – both highlights of the evening. Nancy did a fine extended electric guitar intro on “Straight On” before the band locked into a sultry groove and Ann wailed with her usual abandon.

A pastoral folk rock vibe enveloped “Love Alive” (complete with Ann’s fluttering flute) and the seemingly endless “Mistral Wind” (Nancy’s low slung acoustic seemed out of tune). Both deflated the earlier momentum and prompted a mass exodus by male concertgoers to the beer stands.

The Wilson siblings still indulge their Led Zeppelin obsession live – no surprise to longtime Heart followers. This time, it was an intense “Immigrant Song,” where Ann’s caterwauling rivaled Robert Plant’s and later in the encore section, a relaxed, mandolin led “Going to California.”

Cover time didn’t end there. A faithful take on The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” was truly thunderous. Ann didn’t hold back on her robust vocals and Nancy suddenly jumped all around and continued during a frenzied “Crazy on You.”

Those who came to hear more of Heart’s popular singles, especially from their late ‘80s resurgence, were probably disappointed since “What About Love?,” “Who Will You Run To,” “Nothin’ at All,” “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You” and others were noticeably absent.

Overall though, the Costa Mesa gig proved these veteran rock gals can still deliver the goods.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson

It's been a busy week, so I haven't had time to weigh in here on Jackson's passing. I was glued to the TV last Thursday from the early afternoon when I first heard the news to late in the evening. I was very saddened to discover another great entertainer was taken from us way too early. The next day, I listened to "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" in order and remembered various MJ milestones like when the landmark video to "Thriller" and "We Are the World" debuted on MTV.

Anyway, here is my MJ anecdote, which originally appeared in the OC Register Soundcheck blog on June 26:

My brief encounter with Michael Jackson happened unexpectedly.

It was March 1992. I had gone to West Hollywood to see the British band James perform at the Roxy. Living in Riverside, I tended to head down to the Sunset Strip solely for concerts, and that was usually paired with a trip to the infamous Tower Records on Sunset, where I could pore over the wide selection of CDs — especially import singles.

Being an early Monday evening, the store was fairly empty. I had been browsing awhile when suddenly there was a commotion. Jackson had entered Tower with a bodyguard and a young disabled boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old. A few people watched them from around the corner of an aisle.I did the same, and heard Jackson say, “Go ahead and pick out whatever you want” to the child.

Meanwhile, several employees — no strangers to celeb sightings at the retail establishment where musicians often worked and routinely made in-store appearances — went a little crazy. They made a beeline for the ‘J’ section of rock/pop/soul and ripped open the cardboard long boxes for Jackson CDs so he could sign them. (I wondered what their manager would say.)

Since I already owned every album Jackson had released since Off the Wall and didn’t feel like re-purchasing one, I quickly looked around to find an item he could sign for me. I saw an issue of Tower Pulse magazine that happened to feature Jackson on the cover (a fantastic beach shot by photographer Herb Ritts). I hurried over to where he was signing stuff, squeezed my way in and asked for an autograph.

Michael was very gracious. I mentioned how much I liked the “Black or White” single from the current Dangerous album. He smiled and softly said “thank you.” I also asked whether he was going to play Los Angeles on the upcoming tour and he replied something like “I hope so.”A few minutes later, Jackson, his bodyguard and the boy left.

Although I’ve met many amazing artists while writing about music over the past 19 years, a few minutes with the King of Pop is something I’ll never forget.