Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Neon Trees EP review

Neon Trees

Named after the In-N-Out burger chain’s colorful palm design, Neon Trees came together while attending college in Provo, Utah. Two years ago, the alt-rock newcomers opened some shows for The Killers and came to the attention of major label Mercury.

Fronted by lanky keyboardist Tyler Glenn, who favors “whoa oh” choruses, the foursome makes expansive danceable music that should appeal to fans of the aforementioned Las Vegas band, Metro Station and All American Rejects. Sugarcult’s Tim Pagnotta manned the studio boards for Habits and co-wrote half the tracks.

On propulsive opener “Sins of My Youth,” about teenage trials and tribulations, Glenn sings “I break habits just to fall in love/But I do it on designer drugs/You can call me dangerous.” A distinct Duran Duran-inspired bass line propels the darker “Love and Affection” as drummer Elaine Bradley provides heavenly backing harmonies.

There’s a Strokes-styled vibe to the winsome laws of attraction tune “Animal,” where the straight edge Glenn compares a lover to a cannibal and describes the intoxication of love: “I feel the chemicals kicking in.” Elsewhere, the high flying, aptly-titled “1983” comes across like a lost John Hughes film soundtrack contribution (not a bad thing). Reverb-drenched guitars on “Your Surrender” (co-produced by S*A*M & Sluggo) and spoken word intro on “Our War” provide a welcome change of pace.

Barenaked Ladies album review

Barenaked Ladies
All in Good Time

During the recent Winter Olympics, popular Canadian musicians were represented at various points during the televised opening and closing ceremonies. One glaring omission? Barenaked Ladies (maybe the name didn’t pass muster with old fogeys at the IOC).

The quirky Toronto natives were one of the Great White North’s most successful musical exports in the 1990s and early 2000s. Their well-crafted, smart pop/rock songs stood apart from the pack. The departure of founding member and co-singer/songwriter/guitarist Steven Page last year brought new challenges.

Front man Ed Robertson ably handles the creative load and brings the brawny rock strains more often on solid eleventh studio album All in Good Time. It was produced by Michael Phillip Wojewoda, who also helmed debut disc Gordon in 1992.

Bassist Jim Creeggan and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn help pick up the slack, contributing five tracks between them. Creeggan’s compositions fare best, especially the string quartet sweetened “On the Lookout” and sleek “I Saw It,” about childhood bullying.

Highlights include dramatic slow burn ballad “You Run Away” (one of Robertson’s finest vocal deliveries to date), the breezy “Summertime,” oddly humorous polka “Four Seconds” (Robertson hasn’t lost his knack for wry wordplay since the big hit “One Week”), “Every Subway Car” (he name checks Sly Stallone and sings about a love struck tagger), “Golden Boy” (where the ebullient pop recalls the BnL > sound of yore) and countrified accents on “The Love We’re In” work surprisingly well.

Bamboozle Festival concert review

The Bamboozle Festival
Where: Angel Stadium, Anaheim, Calif.
When: March 28

A version of my review originally appeared in the OC Register.

In many ways, Day 2 of The Bamboozle Festival felt like the initial mid-1990s Vans Warped Tour jaunts before everything got too huge.

With its moderate turnout and three live music stages, the Southern California edition of Bamboozle equaled a more relaxed experience for those in attendance. Some people complained about the move from Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre to Angel Stadium, but the new event home had several positives: comfortable restrooms and food vendors without long lines, multiple shaded areas during a hot afternoon, relatively easy access between stages and less of a traffic bottleneck.

Although Saturday’s lineup was a bit stronger overall, Sunday’s roster boasted three impressive band reunions (headliner Something Corporate, Far, Piebald) and quite a few pleasant surprises (Never Shout Never, Anarbor, The Colourist).

Story of the Year, best known for their highly successful 2003 album Page Avenue, turned in a hard hitting set on the main stage characterized by various members who were unsatisfied about the mosh pit activity level (hey, it was almost 90 degrees F out there), engaged in crude between song banter and pogoed around in unison.

Singer Dan Marsala made light about his voice being shot (screamo interludes are obviously taxing and should be saved for the end). More melodic alt-rock tunes from the solid, just released effort The Constant (“The Children Sing,” “I’m Alive”) made up for any shortcomings though. Half the sizeable crowd seemed indifferent. One teenage girl standing next to me was obviously bored and suddenly let out in her own mocking roar, followed by giggles with her friends. Audience approval definitely picked up during big hit “Until the Day I Die.”

One highly anticipated act among those in attendance (signs and t-shirts spotted everywhere) was Phoenix’s The Maine. Yet the band’s run-of-the-mill punk/pop fell flat. When leader John O’Callaghan let people sing major chunks of “Girls Do What They Want” and “We All Roll Again,” he seemed lazy. Later, after forcefully demanding more movement to the music, it came off as arrogance.

American flags with peace symbols adorned the stage when Never Shout Never performed. It was entirely appropriate, given 19-year-old emo singer/songwriter Christofer Drew’s frequent onstage pronouncements of love and togetherness at Bamboozle. Essentially a solo artist, Drew had a full band to help flesh out the often shrill selections from the popular What Is Love? EP. His endearing stories almost made you want to run up and give the kid a hug. Opening with the folksy “Love is Our Weapon” and a flume of confetti, fans hung on and shrieked at every word. The cutesy “Jane Doe” was akin to a simple-minded Ben Lee, while the piano-led cover of The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” worked well.

“This is quite a homecoming for us,” said Andrew McMahon of Something Corporate, as the OC band (pictured above in a file photo) marked its first full concert in six years at the festival. A new retrospective due in stores this spring and the 10th anniversary of its first independent CD served as an impetus for the reunion.

Although McMahon admitted he was extremely nervous and had been on the verge of sickness all day, musical cobwebs were nonexistent for these musicians, now in their late 20s. McMahon kept his touring chops and showmanship intact in intervening years with current group Jack’s Mannequin.

Taking the stage to the strains of Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” the excellent 65-minute, 14-song set kicked off with the soaring pop/rock of “I Want to Save You” as McMahon hammered the frantic piano lines. Guitarist Josh Partington pumped his fists and looked like he couldn’t be happier than being with his old pals again.

There were subtle, more mature touches in the music of SoCo. McMahon’s voice had a more sonorous timbre on the rambunctious “Punk Rock Princess” and “The Astronaut.” He reminisced about writing the sweeping ballad “Cavanaugh Park” after making a detour off the 5 freeway. Unlike Jack’s Mannequin, the more raucous nature of many SoCo tunes gave McMahon the chance to roam the stage, especially on “Space” and “Hurricane.” Other highlights included the percolating “I Woke Up in a Car” and swoon-worthy “Me and the Moon.”

Diehard enthusiasts were treated to the nearly 10-minute dramatic epic rarity “Konstantine” and the rousing concert closer “If You C Jordan” found the guys pulling out all the stops while McMahon pounced on his piano.

Over on the side stage, Far – the influential 1990s alt-rock band from Sacramento - pulled in a shamefully tiny audience. “I don’t know what’s going on over there, but this is going to be better,” said compelling singer Jonah Matranga. He was right. Far, a reference point for Jimmy Eat World, Thursday and countless others, suddenly re-emerged late last year with the KROQ hit cover of Ginuwine’s “Pony” and will release At Night We Live, its first studio album in a dozen years in May.

Only one song (the blistering “Deafening”) was debuted during the intense and thought-provoking set. Instead, Far concentrated on the 1998 disc Water & Solutions (including chunky riff rocker “Mother Mary,” the full-on hardcore of “I Like It,” “The System,” “Wear it So Well”). All told, Far left me wanting more. I look forward to seeing the band perform the more pop-oriented new tunes in the future.

Orange County’s The Colourist - recently nominated for three OC Music Awards - brought to mind the giddiness of Imperial Teen and a less cerebral Decemberists. Melody is king for this indie rock quartet, where each member takes turns at singing. Whenever frontman/guitarist Adam Castilla and drummer Maya Tuttle’s voices intertwined, it was blissful. Opening with a bit of Daft Punk, they segued into the fizzy pop of “Oh Goodbye.” Elsewhere, the synth-heavy “Put the Fire Out” and “We Won’t Go Home” (complete with xylophone) were highly danceable and the darker “Night’s Still Young” revisited The Cure.

Pop/rocker Anarbor, another band from the Grand Canyon State, pleased several dozen female fans with insanely catchy songs along the lines of Cartel and Panic at the Disco. Leader Slade Echeverra impressed with just the right amount of self confidence, like he was performing at an arena. “You and I,” the theme from last year’s Cartoon Network movie “Scooby Doo: The Mystery Begins” was a standout.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2010 telecast wrap up

It's a good thing Fuse TV will be airing an edited version of the induction ceremonies in future broadcasts, because the four-hour premiere last night was one of the most boring in recent years, with a few exceptions.

Musicians have to wait so long to be inducted that there are always the inevitable postumous inductees, but with so many alive that didn't attend/perform by choice or circumstances beyond their control, it made for a lot of awkward moments.

While it's understandable that Phil Collins is having some sort of back/arthritis issues and can't drum, I don't see why those Genesis members in attendance (Rutherford, Banks, Hackett and longtime sidemen Thompson and Steurmer) couldn't have played with Phil singing.

He could have sat in a chair! I don't think Peter Gabriel cared about it enough to make an effort to be there (Yeah, I know he's rehearsing for a tour, blah blah blah). Phish's two Genesis performances (including the obscure "Watcher of the Skies")left me cold - and that's not because of the music or the fact I don't really like Phish. Singer Trey Anastacio did an admirable job with his fanboy induction speech.

Billie Joe Armstrong's induction speech for the Stooges sure was rambling, but at least he wasn't stiffly reading from a teleprompter like others (more on that later). When he listed about 30 acts influenced by the Stooges over the years, I didn't think he'd ever stop! Iggy Pop's giving everyone the finger, repeating how things were cool, showing everyone his flashcards and choking up a bit at the end of his acceptance was in fact, cool. The censors sure got a workout. The Stooges' performance was appropriately shambolic with a shirtless Iggy going into the crowd and inviting people onstage.

I dig Little Steven Van Zandt, but his long music business induction speech took too long to relate to the Hollies. I find Paul Shaffer and the "Late Show" band to be overrated and hacks, so having them as house band made several songs sound awful. Not that much would've helped the Hollies.

Little Steven and Pat Monahan from Train added some heft to their "Long Cool Woman." There was obviously bad blood with Terry Sylvester. Graham Nash's late '60s replacement in the band had to crash the stage and snatch the microphone (with heavy award under his arm) to briefly sing on it. Reminded me of the sour vibe from Blondie's induction a few years back. Can't these people let bygones be bygones?

Nash said the Hollies had the audacity to chart several No. 1 singles after he left - not quite. They had three top 10s in four years though. Not too shabby.

The Bee Gees' Barry & Robin Gibb were just atrocious reading ABBA's telepropter-assisted induction speech. ABBA's Benny gave a heartfelt acceptance detailing how he was influenced by American music in his native Sweden. Frida's halting English thank yous beforehand were hard to understand. It's ashame she couldn't sing. I would've liked to seen her get up on stage and do "I Know There's Something Going On," with her old producer friend, Phil Collins. It was good to see Benny at least playing piano on Faith Hill's wretched take on "Winner Takes it All." ABBA's Agnetha apparently doesn't fly and didn't make it. Bjorn should've been there. He made the trip several times over the years for "Mamma Mia" musical and theatrical premieres.

In order to get other work done, I had to skip watching Jimmy Cliff. Sorry.

The performance tribute to songwriter inductees proved uneven: Rob Thomas' poignant, mostly acoustic "Save the Last Dance for Me" was a highlight, as was Chris Isaak's "Don't Be Cruel." Ronnie Spector came off very wobbly; Eric Burdon, just ok. Same goes for Peter Wolf and Fefe Dobson. The "Shake Rattle & Roll" finale was less than memorable.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bonus Q&A with Toad the Wet Sprocket

More from my phone interview with Dean Dinning (who handles bass, backing vocals and keyboards) last month from his home in Ventura, California...

What can fans heading to the Anthology gigs in San Diego look forward to?
It’s a full band electric show. We’ve been doing things at more intimate venues on the East Coast and it goes over really well. The band really sounds good in these rooms. We play a little quieter. We’re doing two sets there. Certain songs we have to play, but when we can, we’ll change out and do different songs. It’s a cool, relaxed vibe. We know that our fans aren’t 20 years old anymore, just like we’re not. They don’t necessarily want to go to a club and stand around and get beer spilled on their shoes. It’s a little classier environment, I suppose. You can really take the sound in and hear what’s going on. It’s good for everybody.

Anthology looks like a very classy place.
I’m not sure they’ll let me in.

Although the band got together for a few shows in 2002-03, it was 2006 when you guys really did a major string of shows, right?
Yeah. Glen had put out his “Mr. Lemons” album and his manager at the time came up with a cross-promotion idea where Glen would go out and play a couple songs off that album. Glen was doing an acoustic three-song mini-set in the middle. We don’t do that anymore. [Now] Toad is all about Toad. We’ll throw a Glen [solo] song in now and then. Glen has his thing and we have the Toad thing. We don’t cross them up really anymore. We keep the vibe of a Toad show.

I read some interviews with Glen in 2006 where he was adamant about not wanting to do a new Toad studio album. Is that still the case?
It’s not a forbidden subject. It may have been more so back in ’06. I think things have gotten a lot better, frankly, since he fired his last manager. I kind of took over managing...We have an agent who gets us live shows. We’ve taken control of the band back for ourselves and I think Glen really appreciates that. We’ve gone back to being independent and don’t have to answer to anybody. We don’t have anybody pushing us to do things we don’t want to do. When everybody wants to do it, we will.

If you had to choose, which of the five Toad albums do you think stands the test of time today?
I still think “fear” is a great record...We went to a residential studio, so we lived and breathed it the whole time and there were no distractions. There are [few] moments in time when you get that opportunity. I don’t know whether we’ve had it since. That was before anybody got married or had kids.

Would you consider the band playing at the Bill Clinton inauguration festivities one of the 1990s Toad era highlights?
It was so cool to be part of history and be there essentially because we were Chelsea Clinton’s favorite band at the time. She came and it was great to be part of that. We did some great stuff. I remember one thing in particular – it creeps me out. We did a free show, outside in the plaza between the two World Trade Center towers. It was a terrific show and all kinds of people came out. It was like U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” video or something. People still talk about that. It was just incredible. I remember going into the North Tower and looking for a bathroom. It’s one thing to know those buildings as icons, but to have had a personal experience or triumph take place right on those grounds, and everything that’s happened since then – it’s really profound.

Is it hard to believe your first two albums came out a little over 20 years ago?
I’d say looking back, it feels like 20 years. I just look back and think to myself how fortunate we were to have come out before the age of downloading and file sharing. We put so much effort into the artwork, the packaging, photography and everything. We were so thrilled. I remember when we got the very first CD of “Bread and Circus.” It was like, ‘wow, we’re on CD for the first time!’ We had only been on cassette up until then. We had creative control over everything, so we really took advantage of it and put a lot of thought into what we were doing.

When the band split in ’98, Glen has said everyone was so devoid of passion that it had to end. Did you agree?
It was a weird situation. It was not going well creatively. Glen was already starting to do solo shows. We had a plan when we made “Coil” that we were going to save money and build a home studio. Then take the money we saved and hire a really good mixer. Which we did do, but it took longer to finish than we thought. Glen was doing his solo acoustic shows and he saw that as a way to go out and get things done without having to wait around for us.

After the band, you got involved in some film work. Is that something you’d always wanted to do? I know you guys were considered “theater geeks” in high school.
We were. I originally got into doing some voice acting. I met a lot of actors and started taking acting classes. I did a few student films and a couple movies. It’s something I know how to do now and I’ve gotten calls for people asking me to do stuff. It’s nice to have another thing if I want to use it. As soon as I got in there and started taking it seriously, I looked around and realized all the actor friends I knew were broke. I thought, ‘this isn’t going to be easy. There aren’t even enough jobs to keep the people who are really great employed.’ Eventually, I had a moment where I thought, ‘what am I put on this planet to do?’ And that’s to make music.

You’ve done some soundtrack work, most recently the indie film “Desertion.”
I did the score for it. That kind of fell into my lap. I knew the producer. The guy they had dropped out and they needed somebody quick. I wanted to be able to do a score so I could use that as a calling card. The film won a Valley Film Festival award [in SoCal]. I worked with Todd on it. It came out great. It was really fun and we’d love to do another one. I was really scared of it before I did it. Then I found out how fun it was. Also, coming from acting class and having learned about the beats in a scene and building a drama…that’s why they call it underscoring the emotion. You ramp up the intensity of a scene. You can comment on it, but it’s all about not intruding, but hinting at things. It was a great experience.

You and Todd have been going down to Nashville periodically to write with several country songwriters. How has that been going?
That has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. The community of musicians and writers there has been really welcoming to us. We have met some wonderful people and their attitude about songwriting and music is just so different from L.A. They are very warm and collaborative. Everybody is helping each other out. Man, we have got some great material that we are pitching to artists every day now. A lot of people write and write. Then their publisher says, ‘ok, you’ve got five good songs, let’s go in and cut some demos.’ Since Todd has a home studio and we sort of know how to make records, we’ve been doing most of the demos ourselves and getting other people to sing on it. We have a guy who sets it up for us. We’ve made so many contacts and friends that we just let people know when we’re going to be there. We make appointments and get together and write. We take the stuff home, make the demos and get people to sing on it and we have a song plugger – the whole deal.

There was also a big collaboration with Darius Rucker recently. Tell me about that.
We did. He was in L.A. recently and it was his idea. Todd emailed him about playing some golf because we’ve been friends with him for a long time. Darius said, ‘let’s write a song while we’re at it.’ We took 2 days. The first we played golf and the second, we wrote a song. I’m not sure if I should be talking about it because I don’t want to jinx it, but it sure did come out good.

Since you came from an extended family well versed in the music biz, did you always know as a kid you’d go into music?
I used to put on my headphones and put on Journey’s “Escape” and imagined that it was me onstage playing those songs. You can take from that what you will.

Q&A with Needtobreathe

Here is additional material from my phone interview with singer/guitarist Bear Rinehart last month from the band’s studio in Charleston, SC.

Is this the same studio where you demo songs for your albums?
Yeah, it’s become a real deal thing. It started out as a demo studio pretty much, but there’s a house here we wrecked and made into a studio we come home to. It’s great and in a neighborhood where nobody knows we’re here. We can spend all the time we want and nobody tells us ‘no.’

On the upcoming tour, the band will play some of its largest venues to date as a headliner. Looking forward to that?
We are. It’s been crazy. We always used to say that the funnest time in our career was going to be when we finally sold out all the venues we’d been playing forever. It seems like when you first start out as a band, you play certain clubs around the country on everybody’s tour list. You see all these clubs everybody’s playing. This was the first time we got the routing for a tour and I didn’t recognize half the venues...I think we’ve always taken the live thing pretty seriously. It’s the backbone of what we do. So we’re taking out more lights and production stuff.

You’ve played large venues as an opening act and at festivals. Which do you prefer?
I think we like the intimate thing. There’s a lot to like about both obviously. I think we’re definitely in our element as a headliner. We can’t play 3 or 4 songs in 45 min. We grew up playing in sweaty clubs and we feel a little bit like that’s home for us. When you open and play festivals, you find yourself playing for 10,000 people. That completely changes the dynamic. I think it’s something that if we do ever get to that level, we’ll really enjoy and embrace it. We’ve had that funny story where we’re opening for a band in front of that many people and we have to put all our amps really close together because our cables won’t reach. There’s a growing up process as you get to bigger venues. We’ve really enjoyed it every step of the way.

When I caught the band live last summer at Fish Fest at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine, Calif., you managed to make that place seem intimate, which isn’t easy. Is making a personal connection with fans the best part of performing live for you?
I think it is...That’s been something we’ve always tried to build on. I think live, certainly, we feel like we’re making that connection with them because they can see our faces. You’re giving them another dimension of you. They’ve heard the records, but when they see me singing it or Bo playing his guitar, it really puts 2+2 together. It's music they may have already liked, but just played in a completely different way.

In June, the band plays Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. Are you stoked about that?
We are. We’re very excited. Obviously, the lineup is ridiculous. We’ve never been to Bonnaroo and have always been out on other tours. We’ve been off for a couple months and [rarin'] to go. We’re chomping at the bit waiting to get back on the road.

‘The Outsiders’ was one of my top 10 albums of 2009. Now that it's been out for several months, are you happy with how it turned out and has been received?
I am. We did a whole tour of the record already that we feel was on a whole new level of musicality for us. A lot of the songs on there really translate live well. The record’s doing well and we feel like we’re just getting started too. “Hurricane,” our latest single, is going to alternative radio, which we’ve never been at before. We just shot a video for that.

How did the recording process go?
Atlantic Records have given us a lot of freedom. I feel like we’re an independent band on a major label. They don’t check in too much or give us too much trouble on things. That’s been really cool. They’ve tried to create a situation for us to make music we want to make and do it the best way we can. We’re in love with the old model of making music. Back in the day, they had an old studio at Atlantic Records. Ray Charles would come in, play four songs and that was the record. We really like that kind of idea where you’re on the road and say, ‘I’ve got some songs. We’ll come and record them right now.’ That’s something we think is important. You can do anything these days in the next minute. We should music be that way? Having to schedule some guy to come in the studio, take months off. It’s a cool thing that we can capitalize on our excitement whenever we feel like it.

How would you describe the video you and your brother directed for “Hurricane.”?
It was an absolute blast, man. We’re definitely going to do more. Atlantic was really cool and gave us the money to go do it. It’s a live thing. We’re in a theater…We kind of used Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” as a [template]. It’s sort of a cross between that and Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.”

The band was embraced by Christian radio first. Was that a surprise or expected?
We’re always happy to hear our music is being played on the radio. We’re not so arrogant to feel we need no help. Our songs are never written with radio in mind. It’s something we can’t control, but we don’t look down on it either.

Did you attend the Dove Awards ceremony when you won recently for Rock/Contemporary Song of the Year with "Washed By the Water"?
No, it was a surprise. I was out in the back with the barbeque when someone called and told me.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Toad the Wet Sprocket interview 2010

A version of my story originally appeared in the North County Times. The band appears at Anthology in San Diego on Wednesday and the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana on Friday.

Whenever a successful band reunites and tours, people want to know whether fresh material is imminent. Pop/rock outfit Toad the Wet Sprocket, which split in 1998 and resumed performances in the mid-2000s, is still pondering that question.

Meanwhile, singer/guitarist Glen Phillips has been busy performing and recording other projects, including two solo efforts, one with Plover and last year’s self-titled album from Works Progress Administration. The latter group features Sean and Sara Watkins (formerly of Carlsbad bluegrass trio Nickel Creek and fellow collaborators in Mutual Admiration Society), among others.

According to bassist Dean Dinning, he and other members of Toad – guitarist Todd Nichols and drummer Randy Guss - are up for modernizing the band’s sound.

“Glen knows the three of us are ready whenever he is, [but] I don’t think any of us want to do something that he’s not fully invested in. We talk about it all the time; it’s not a forbidden subject.”

They wouldn’t rule out a live album, either. “As long as we keep playing, all kinds of things are possible,” said Dinning, from his home in Ventura.

But financing and the fact that “we have a very taper-friendly policy - people come to our shows with good microphones and high quality digital recorders” and post various Toad shows on - would make a standard concert recording less appealing.

Dinning was pleased when Columbia Records decided to put out the fine CD “Welcome Home: Live” in 2004. Recorded at Santa Barbara ’s Arlington Theatre on the “Fear” tour, “it captured the band coming back to our hometown after having our first real taste of national success. If we could do another one at some point, I’d like it to be a ‘Storytellers’ or ‘Austin City Limits’-type thing; maybe like [The Eagles’] ‘Hell Freezes Over.’”

Once Toad began doing its old material onstage again, Dinning came to a realization.

“We had good material that seems to resonate more [now]. I’m so glad that we weren’t writing about things that were too topical or trivial. I can’t imagine being 45 years old and having to play Blink-182 songs. Our material was meaty and had a lot going on. The arrangements are nice and complicated. The songs are always satisfying to play.”

Taking its name from a Monty Python comedy skit, Toad the Wet Sprocket formed in 1986 while members were high school students in Santa Barbara . Three years later, they self-financed debut album “Bread & Circus,” which drew minor airplay on college/modern rock radio. Columbia came calling amid the recording of sophomore disc “Pale” and eventually issued both releases.

Dinning was already well-versed in the music biz because his aunts comprised popular 1940s and ‘50s harmony vocal trio The Dinning Sisters and uncle Mark had a chart topper in 1960 with “Teen Angel.”

Still, “my parents used that as a cautionary tale, saying, ‘you can try, but make sure’ [you have something to fall back on]. All of us in Toad stayed in college up until the day we got a record deal. Nobody quit and said, ‘this is what I’m going to do no matter what.’ We all had a Plan B.”

The quartet hit pay dirt with 1991’s platinum-selling “Fear,” bringing their jangly, R.E.M.-inspired sound to the next level and notching two top 20 pop singles (“All I Want,” “Walk on the Ocean”) at the height of grunge. Dinning believes the disc still stands up today, even though “there may have been some digital reverb overuse back when it was made.

“It was our first time having a real budget and going into a real studio…We had no idea whether the band was going to break through or not. I think we were just swinging for the fences. It really worked. We managed to get great performances and all the sonic fun things we wanted.”

Later, Toad saw 1994’s “Dulcinea” go platinum and B-sides collection “In Light Syrup” reach gold status amid the punk revival. More multi-format radio hits (“Fall Down,” “Something’s Always Wrong,” “Good Intentions,” “Come Down”) followed.

“We were just doing our own thing…All these pop stations were turning into modern rock stations and needed to have something that wouldn’t frighten their listeners away. We were a safe choice and I think that really worked to our advantage. It still does today too. As you get older, the less you want to listen to really heavy stuff. I think your ears are just tired.”

After Toad folded, Dinning and Nichols returned in the band Lapdog, emerging with the album “Near Tonight” in 2000. Dinning left that to do acting, soundtrack and scoring work on several indie films.

Recently, he and Nichols have immersed themselves in Nashville ’s country music scene, pitching songs and collaborating with tunesmiths who have penned hits for Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry and Blake Shelton (check out their demos at

The guys even reconnected with longtime friend and country sensation Darius Rucker (Toad and Rucker’s Hootie and the Blowfish toured together in the ‘90s) for a writing session.

“I don’t care if it comes out on an outtakes album in five years. Just to have done it was a wonderful thing.”

Needtobreathe interview

The band plays the Glass House in Pomona on April 30 and the El Rey Theatre in LA on May 1. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records and

Bear Rinehart traded the playing field for a concert stage.

As wide receiver at Greenville, S.C.’s Furman University, he helped lead the football team to consecutive playoff appearances, broke several all-time school records and won a prestigious sporting award.

Raised by a pastor/trumpeter father (who performed with Roy Clark and Glen Campbell) and a mother proficient on piano, music was ingrained in the Rinehart family life.

The career decision was a no-brainer.

“I had a real passion for music in college,” admits the needtobreathe singer, in a phone interview from Charleston , where the rock band has a home studio. “It wasn’t like I didn’t like football; I just had no desire to play for the NFL. Music was an obvious choice for me. I have a hard time faking it.”

Acclaimed third album The Outsiders made a top 20 debut on the Billboard 200 last summer and has spawned two hit singles (the stomping, inspirational “Lay ‘Em Down”; shimmering “Something Beautiful”) at various radio formats. The latter tune can be heard in romantic comedy When in Rome starring Josh Duhamel and Kristen Bell, while new single “Hurricane” is set to climb the alternative charts.

Named after successful University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Rinehart formed an early incarnation of needtobreathe in 2000, playing coffeehouses around campus. Upon graduation two years later, the lineup was solidified in nearby Seneca (population 8,000) by his guitarist brother Bo, bassist Seth Bolt and drummer Joe Stillwell (a fellow Furman alum). Bo was also drawn to the gridiron, having served as an acting double in the ‘03 Cuba Gooding Jr. football flick “Radio.”

Needtobreathe – the moniker was derived from a story about Greek philosopher Socrates – recorded an indie album and two EPs. Atlantic Records released major label bow Daylight in 2006; tours with Train, Jars of Clay and Collective Soul (whose vocalist Ed Roland would produce songs on expansive, Dove Award-winning 2007 album The Heat) ensued.

The band took an organic approach on the excellent The Outsiders, adding elements of folk, blues and soul. What results is a compelling cross between U2 and Black Crowes.

“Each record has seen us branching out a little further,” explains Rinehart. “We’ve also become more honest about what we like. We really had to get behind it and say, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I writing this song? Who is it for?’ Ultimately, if we don’t go crazy over it in the studio, we won’t put it on…That led us to [using] slide guitars, banjos and harmonica.”

Rinehart says the album opener and title track reflects their roots. “We didn’t come from a big music scene and always felt like we were outside looking in.”

Key tracks include the duet with Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek on plaintive ballad “Stones Under Rushing Water,” the driving intensity of “Hurricane,” rollicking “Girl Called Tennessee” (“I was trying to get a Jerry Lee Lewis feel”) and anthemic closer, “Let Us Love” featuring a gang chorus. It was done “live, in the moment. The lesson there was we have to trust ourselves and let spontaneity happen.”

This time, the guys were also more hands-on, serving as co-producers, while Bolt - who has a recording degree and opened Plantation Studios when he was 16 - assisted with mixing and engineering.

“You can be more harsh with people you know,” Rinehart jokes about the benefits of Bolt’s expertise. “We do things differently. What the band does is the law. Nobody goes home because they’re not feeling well. Everybody’s working and we don’t [leave] until we get it right. That makes the atmosphere around what we do more important. It feels like a real team, having Seth do that and Bo doing all the art and web site.”

Songwriting duties are usually divided equally between the siblings. “There’s hardly any songs in our career where one of us brought everything to the table. It’s always a work in progress where we come together. I think that’s good. Because we’re brothers, some people [assume we’re] similar - that couldn’t be further from the truth. Me and Bo are the most opposite two people could possibly be.”

Bear cites influences like Joe Cocker, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen - “basically anybody with a chip on their shoulder” - and believes “everybody has something they need to prove…If we don’t, we should hang it up. Once Springsteen became successful, I respect and appreciate the fact he always had that passion.”

Although the Christian music community was first to embrace needtobreathe (and continues to do so – they’re nominated for three 2010 Dove Awards), Rinehart doesn’t like being slotted exclusively in that genre because he says the band makes music for everyone, regardless of faith.

Following an extended break earlier this year, needtobreathe is anxious to get back on the road and play bigger venues as a headliner. In June, they’ll play Bonnaroo for the first time.

“This is definitely a new level for us and it’s very exciting…We’re constantly after a relationship with people through the record or the live thing. It’s built on sincerity and honesty. Those things are our strengths.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bon Jovi concert review: Anaheim

A version of my review originally appeared in the Orange County Register. Photo by Armando Brown, courtesy of the Register

Bon Jovi, Dashboard Confessional
Honda Center, Anaheim, CA
Feb. 26

The day before singer Jon Bon Jovi and his namesake band returned to Honda Center, he sent followers a tweet regarding the previous Glendale , Ariz. gig: “Sorry some of the production didn’t work; that’s why I couldn’t change the set list.”

While the Anaheim song running order only varied slightly on Friday, those Phoenix area fans must have missed out on a key component – amazing visuals – on “The Circle” world tour, which just got underway.

Nowadays, many superstar rock acts engage in a game of one-upsmanship for each concert trek, seeking a “bigger and better” reputation. U2 tends to lead the way in unique stage, sound and lighting design. Others typically tweak the Irish group’s ideas or come up with something new altogether.

Modern technology sure is a wonderful thing. Bon Jovi played on a round stage with a small semi-circular catwalk filled with rows of people who paid a pretty penny for VIP packages, but my eyes were often glued overhead. I’d never seen anyone utilize screens in a similar way before. They came together, multiplied and changed shape. Additional panels morphed into makeshift stairs when Jon Bon Jovi briefly gave fans behind the stage his undivided attention.

Yet the music matters most and this veteran New Jersey rock group turned in a mostly satisfying two hour, 15-minute performance that sounded great at the Honda. The still boyish-looking frontman (who turns 48 on Tuesday) was happy-go-lucky during a smattering of big 1980s hits and appropriately serious amid selections from latest studio album, "The Circle."

Inspired by America ’s recent economic turmoil and political upheaval, the newest songs are hardly dreary. Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora specialize in writing hopeful anthems and did so again. Sonically, the band ditched the country-inflected elements of 2007’s "Lost Highway" and like U2, utilized more atmospheric guitar and keyboard textures.

A descending screen flashed various words (life, joy, doubt, euphoria) and the band was seen walking through a tunnel pictured on The Circle cover. It lifted to reveal the four musicians standing there soaking in the applause before taking their instruments. They opened with a rarity – “Blood on Blood,” a somewhat sluggish recollection of youthful brotherhood from 1988’s "New Jersey." The line “I’m still the singer in a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll band” drew plenty of cheers from the packed arena.

Paired with different images of world leaders and icons (President Obama, Winston Churchill, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan) and displayed in Shepard Fairey colors, “We Weren’t Born to Follow” was a bit more invigorating. Fans young and old pumped their fists in unison to the chorus.

“Believe it or not, we had albums before Slippery When Wet,” Jon Bon Jovi said about the diamond certified (10 million + sales) effort. Then the band launched into the strident, sexually suggestive hard rocker “Get Ready” from their 1984 self-titled debut. Second guitarist/backing vocalist Bobby Bandiera – on loan from popular Jersey Shore outfit Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes – really proved his mettle here.

An optimistic “When We Were Beautiful” (also the title of a band documentary film included with initial copies of The Circle) found the singer bathed in a single spotlight for his big grand statement, complete with dramatic emoting and Sambora’s shimmering guitar work. It came off flat though. Current single “Superman Tonight” fared better with its propulsive uplift and Sambora’s dynamic slide guitar work.

The fun, party-hearty “Bad Medicine” (scantily clad, undulating women were projected above – matching many fortysomething ladies in the crowd below) segued into a slower tempo take on “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor),” a '70s hit for Robert Palmer. Bandiera moved front and center to share lead vocals with Bon Jovi as he reminisced about putting quarters in a bar’s jukebox playing all night.

Later, Sambora would assume the spotlight to sing and do some bluesy guitar on the lulling deep New Jersey album cut “Homebound Train.” Concertgoers promptly made a beeline for the bathrooms and beer stands.

Then Jon Bon Jovi suddenly appeared alone on the catwalk to reprise his passionate rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” assisted by David Bryan’s subtle piano. In the rock doc, Bon Jovi boasts that it is Cohen’s favorite version (and there sure are a lot of them; the track has been overused, much like Etta James’ “At Last”). Still, the crowd paid rapt attention and the vocalist was clearly teary eyed following a sustained ending note.

Everyone joined him on the catwalk for a fine folksy acoustic segment comprising another rarity, “Something for the Pain,” and a revamped “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night.”

Later, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” was smile-inducing as usual. Bryan ’s pulsating synths and Jon Bon Jovi’s vivacious delivery on racing mid-tempo rocker “Love’s the Only Rule” made it the best of six "Circle" tracks performed.

Come encore time, Sambora and his partner traded searing electric guitar licks during “Thorn in My Side,” so it became more interesting than the studio version. “Wanted Dead or Alive,” with that descending guitar pattern as familiar to classic rock radio listeners as The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” still bristled with intensity and Sambora’s solo was volcanic. Finally, the high energy “Livin’ on a Prayer” featured contest video submissions on multiple screens.

Alternative rockers Dashboard Confessional – an unusual choice for opening act - drew blank stares and polite applause for their impressive 11-song, 40-minute set. Onetime emo king Chris Carrabba can definitely wail, so he had no trouble cutting through one of the largest venues the band has ever played in OC.

Concentrating on "Alter the Ending" (among last year’s best albums), the dramatic “Blame it on the Changes” and charming “Belle of the Boulevard,” plus chunky guitar driven “Until Morning” and “I Know About You,” fared best among the new material. More introspective numbers (“Even Now, “Stolen”) were somewhat overwhelmed by the hugeness of Honda Center. A straightforward and surprising cover of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” worked well and finally got the crowd’s attention at the end.

Both bands are at Staples Center on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., $22.70-$153.

Bon Jovi setlist: Blood on Blood/We Weren’t Born to Follow/You Give Love a Bad Name/Get Ready/Born to Be My Baby/When We Were Beautiful/Superman Tonight/We Got it Going On/Bad Medicine-Bad Case of Loving You (Robert Palmer cover) medley/It’s My Life/Homebound Train/Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen cover)/Bed of Roses/Something For the Pain/Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night/Keep the Faith/Work For the Working Man/Who Says You Can’t Go Home/Love’s the Only Rule

Encore: Thorn in My Side/Wanted Dead or Alive/Livin’ on a Prayer

Jamie Cullum album review

Jamie Cullum
The Pursuit
[Verve Forecast]
Grade: A

Jamie Cullum is in a league all his own. Unlike many modern jazz and pop standards singers, this brash piano playing Brit co-writes the bulk of material that goes on albums and handles multiple instruments. Whenever Cullum skillfully reinterprets a song (Radiohead, Doves, Jeff Buckley, Jimi Hendrix have been tackled in the past), you nearly forget about the original.

After a four year hiatus that included collaborations with The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams, film work (the animated Meet the Robinsons, Golden Globe-nominated songs from Grace is Gone and Gran Torino) and marriage, he’s back with snazzy third effort The Pursuit.

Produced by Greg Wells (Mika, Katy Perry) and Martin Terefe (James Morrison), it finds Cullum in better voice than ever and re-emphasizing his pop smarts. A new lyrical tag is added to Cole Porter’s finger snapping, casual fling tune “Just One of Those Things” with the Count Basie Orchestra (dig Cullum’s Thelonious Monk-style flourishes). Giddy “I’m All Over It Now” (co-penned by Ricky Ross of late ‘80s Scottish sensation Deacon Blue) should put a smile on listeners’ faces.

The syncopated, circular piano figure and programming on “Wheels” will appeal to Keane fans. Handclaps, scatting and wild ivory tickling elevate the infectious vibe of “You and Me Are Gone.” Cullum’s sensual take on Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” and the Fender Rhodes/drum ‘n’ bass infused “We Run Things” are real eye openers.

Other standouts include engaging seven-minute long dance/jazz hybrid “Music is Through” and shrewd, sweeping “Mixtape,” where Cullum’s nimble piano fingerings are bolstered by celebrated string arranger Paul Buckmaster and the horn section from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Lifehouse album review

Smoke and Mirrors
Grade: B

On “Here Tomorrow, Gone Today,” a seething rocker with Middle Eastern overtones, Jason Wade snarls “we don’t want what you’re giving away.” Rejection hasn’t really been a problem for Lifehouse. Since forming a decade ago, the LA-based pop/rock band sold over five million albums and crafted singles that became fixtures at multiple radio formats (“Hanging by a Moment,” “You and Me”).

Their widespread appeal comes from earnest, hook-laden rock tunes guys dig and romantic ballads that make girls swoon. Fifth album Smoke and Mirrors finds the quartet shaking up the formula just enough to keep things from becoming stagnant.

Front man Wade collaborated with outside musicians for the first time and the results are impressive. Rapper/guitarist Kevin Rudolf (Lil Wayne, Timbaland) co-wrote initial single “Halfway Gone” and “Falling In,” which is notable for rare Lifehouse drum programming. The intricate and catchy “Had Enough” was co-penned by Chris Daughtry (who also sings background) and veteran Richard Marx.

The addition of second guitarist Ben Carey strengthened the Lifehouse sound, especially during “Nerve Damage.” Quite a departure, it features skittering beats, an axe solo that goes into classic rock overdrive and Wade wrapping his raspy voice around lyrics about a “new circus freak with black eyes that speak.” Elsewhere, bassist Bryce Soderberg does a fine job on the edgy and engaging “Wrecking Ball” (his debut lead vocal); the discontented title track is bolstered by swelling organ work.

Diehard fans should opt for the deluxe version containing four bonus tracks. The laid back folk/rocker “Near Life Experience” finds Wade sounding like John Mellencamp and exposed like never before.