Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Year in Music: Albums you might have missed

With so much new music unleashed over the course of the year, even well-established musicians' releases can sometimes go unnoticed. With that in mind, the following ones deserve more attention...

Artist: Simple Minds
Title: Big Music (Caroline)
The lowdown: Yes, they're alive and kicking. In fact, the veteran Glasgow band has continued to put out albums at home since coming to worldwide prominence in the 1980s. And lest there be any doubt about whether they can still write transcendental songs, it's all there in title: Big Music. The first studio CD in five years is enrapturing. It was crafted by the principle lineup (singer Jim Kerr, guitarist Charlie Burchill, drummer Mel Gaynor), with songwriting and programming assistance on a couple songs from fellow Scot Iain Cook (Chvrches) and Paul Statham (Peter Murphy). 

Boasting plenty of swelling and percolating synth work, this stuff is rife for club remixes. Highlights include the upbeat "Blood Diamonds" and majestic "Broken Glass Park" (first heard on last year's Celebrate: The Greatest Hits), highly danceable "Imagination" and "Midnight Walking." Then there's a hearty cover of The Call's "Let The Day Begin," where the band totally makes it their own. 

Artist: Erasure
Title: The Violet Flame (Mute)
The lowdown: Another UK act that came to international fame in the Eighties and churns out new albums on a fairly regular basis is Erasure. Teaming with producer Richard X (Pet Shop Boys, Sam Sparro), the duo is in fine fettle here. Music mastermind Vince Clarke always seems to find new ways to tweak their signature sound without sounding repetitive. Standouts include Andy Bell's heartfelt vocals on "Reason," the idyllic "Be The One," old school vibe of "Under The Wave," Georgio Moroder-styled "Paradise" and the comforting "Stayed A Little Late Tonight."

Longtime fans are advised to get the 2CD version which contains an enjoyable, mostly hit-laden  2011 set from London's Short Circuit at the Roundhouse, especially "A Little Respect," "Chains of Love," "Always" and "Victim of Love." The inclusion of ethereal, seldom played "Fingers & Thumbs" is a welcome bonus.  

Artist: Paul Carrack
Title: Rain or Shine (Carrack-UK)
The lowdown: Best known for his work with Mike+The Mechanics, Squeeze, Roxy Music, Ace and high profile session work dating back to the 1970s, Carrack has one of the most distinctive voices of the rock era. Here, the Englishman plays several instruments and flexes his blue-eyed soul muscle with panache.

Co-produced by former Mechanics mate Peter Van Hooke, the 10 songs are a solid mix of sumptuous, orchestrated originals and well-chosen covers. The album opens with the sweeping "Stepping Stone." Then there's "That's All That Matters to Me," which comes across like a long lost Al Green classic. The punchy "Time Waits for No One" could've easily been a hit in 1966. Carrack's takes on the Ray Charles popularized "You Don't Know Me" and Hard Times" are winners, as is "If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don't Want to Be Right)." It all closes with a snazzy take on yet another song Charles recorded, "Come Rain or Come Shine," a Great American Songbook classic penned by Arlen/Mercer.
Artist: Neal McCoy
Title: Pride-Deluxe Edition (Slate Creek)
The lowdown: First released in 2013, Pride is Neal McCoy's tribute to country legend Charley Pride that now comes with two bonus tracks (the gospel "Let Me Live," rambunctious "Why Baby Why"). It features guest vocal appearances by The Mavericks' Raul Malo (the upbeat “I’m Just Me”), Darius Rucker (a faithful, pedal steel-infused  “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”) and Trace Adkins (the ballad “Roll On Mississippi” featuring harmonica work by Mickey Raphael). Elsewhere, the simmering Indian drama of "Kaw-Liga," chugging country rocker "Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone" and festive "You're My Jamaica" are highlights. Pride is available exclusively through Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and its website.
Artist: The Babys
Title:  I’ll Have Some of That (Skyrocket/InGrooves)
The lowdown: Last year, original lead guitarist Wally Stocker and drummer Tony Brock reformed The Babys. They made a great find in lead vocalist/bassist John Bisaha, who bears a passing resemblance to John Waite, the former frontman during the band's prime late '70s/early '80s period. Together with rhythm guitarist Joey Sykes, the new lineup recorded the first Babys album in 33 years. The often impressive results recapture the old days' vibe. Many tracks even feature soulful female backing vocals. Starting off with barrelhouse rocker "Every Side Of You," the midtempo ballad "I See You There" and rockers "You Saved My Life" and "It's a Gas" are the main picks to click.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Billy Idol news

Billy Idol will kick off the new year with a performance at the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic -- the New Year’s Day outdoor game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Capitals -- at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

It will be televised live at 1:00 p.m. ET on NBC (along with CBC and TVA). This performance will come as Idol prepares for his 2015 tour in support of his critically acclaimed 2014 album Kings & Queens of the Underground which features the lead single “Can’t Break Me Down."

Idol’s pre-game performance from the main stage at home plate before puck drop will pay tribute to the United States Armed Forces during the pre-game and in-game festivities on Jan. 1. Following his performance, Idol will be joined near the stage by more than 150 members of all five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, who will be attending the game as honored guests of the NHL, for a special salute.

Idol’s 2015 theatre tour of the U.S. and Canada throughout January and February is the latest leg of his “Kings & Queens Of The Underground Live” world tour which included a run of European shows this past in November. Tickets for almost all of the North American shows (see full itinerary below) are sold out.

Kings & Queens of the Underground -- Idol's first studio album in nearly a decade -- was released in October on BFI Records via Kobalt Label Services. The album was primarily produced by Trevor Horn, with Greg Kurstin also contributing as producer to two songs, including “Can’t Break Me Down.” 


January 21: House Of Blues, New Orleans, LA
January 22: The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA
January 24: Tower Theatre, Upper Darby, PA
January 25: Lincoln Theatre, Washington, DC
January 28: Beacon Theatre, New York, NY
January 29: Wellmont Theater, Montclair, NJ
January 31: Orpheum Theatre, Boston, MA
February 3: Metropolis, Montreal, QC
February 4: Massey Hall, Toronto, ON
February 6: The Fillmore, Detroit, MI
February 7: Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL
February 9: Paramount Theatre, Denver, CO
February 12: Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, BC
February 13: Paramount Theatre, Seattle, WA
February 15: The Fox Theatre, Oakland, CA
February 18: The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA
February 19: The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA
February 21: The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas, NV
February 22: The Observatory, Santa Ana, CA

The Year in Music: Live albums

Here are some of the best live albums from 2014... 

Artist: Rod Stewart 
Title: Live 1976-1998: Tonight’s the Night (Warner Bros.) 
The lowdown: Although Rod Stewart amassed dozens of solo hits from the Seventies onward, the live arena is where he really shined. This superb new 4 CD, 58-track live set, sequenced chronologically, is solid proof. The Scotsman and his crack band would often stretch the songs out live and his raspy, blues-inspired vocals would be more at the fore.

Disc 1 is devoted to December 1976 when Stewart toured England behind the double-platinum A Night on the Town. Some tracks broach the eight-minute mark, including a terrific cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock 'n Roller” (featuring a barrelhouse piano solo by John Jarvis and the sizzling triple guitar interplay of Jim Cregan, Gary Grainger and Billy Peek) and "Maggie May" (with a hearty audience singalong and reggae breakdown section). Other standouts are Stewart and company’s smokin’ takes on The Temptations’ “(I Know) I'm Losing You” and the Beatles’ “Get Back.”

A good portion of Disc 2, comprised of shows from 1976-81, concentrates on shows from Wembley in London and the Forum in LA (some party-hearty cover medleys: Sam Cooke, more Tempts, Eric Clapton). The latter stretch has Tina Turner adding steam to "Hot Legs" (and Stewart approving of her cleavage) and going into slow burn harmonica-laced blues on Willie Dixon’s "I Just Want to Make Love to You.”

Some people – not this writer - consider the Eighties to be Stewart’s creative nadir. Yet the tracks on Disc 3 (split between an ‘84 gig in San Diego and an ‘89 one in E. Rutherford, New Jersey) only include a handful from that era. In the case of the Meadowlands concert, all the songs from Out of Order are winners, including “Lost in You,” "Forever Young" and the perfectly fitting, soulful revamp of Otis Redding hit, “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Heading into the Nineties, Disc 4 spotlights a 1991 return appearance to Wembley, There’s another hearty tribute to Redding and Cooke; this time, "Sweet Soul Music," plus a soulful "This Old Heart of Mine" (he toured with a few male backing vocalists at the time). Two years later, high on the triple platinum success of the MTV soundtrack Unplugged...and Seated album, Stewart played LA’s Greek Theatre. He dipped into the acclaimed ‘70s catalog with appropriate nuance.

Standouts – often with former Faces bandmate Ian McLagan on organ - include the orchestrated "Handbags & Gladrags," "Cut Across Shorty" and “Reason To Believe." Future producer du jour John Shanks does a stunning weepy guitar solo on “People Get Ready.” Back in London for a smaller ’98 gig to support When We Were the New Boys, the underrated, cover-centric collection, Stewart does rowdy versions of Primal Scream's “Rocks” and Oasis’ “Cigarettes And Alcohol” as if they were own. A must for any Stewart fan. 

Artist: Steve Earle 
Title: Live in Nashville 1995 (Shout! Factory) 
The lowdown: Recorded in December of 1995 at the Polk Theater, this live album was originally included in box set The Warner Bros. Years. Backed by a trio that plays a variety of instruments (dobro, Hawaiian guitar, fiddle, mandola), Earle’s setlist is mostly drawn from Train-a-Comin’, the Grammy-nominated CD out earlier the same year. Before bluegrass tune “Hometown Blues,” Earle gives “apologies to Doc Watson.” Then the crowd loudly whoops and hollers during “The Devil’s Right Hand” (off 1988’s Copperhead Road).

Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe guests on “Walls of Time,” a 1982 song he co-wrote with Earle’s tour mandolinist Pete Rowan. After they finish, Earle is obviously excited and he jokes about the “financial pleasure” of Travis Tritt covering “Sometimes She Forgets.” A cover of “I’m Looking Through You” casts the Beatles classic in a folksy light.

Emmylou Harris adds her dulcet vocal tones to three songs: “Rivers of Babylon” (with help from Rowan), the plaintive “Goodbye” and “Nothin’ Without You.” Earle does the traditional “When Will We Be Married?” accompanied by mandolin. Despite being on acoustic instruments, all the musicians make a spirited noise on the finale, “Copperhead Road.” 

Artist: Coldplay 
Title: Ghost Stories: Live 2014 (Atlantic)
The lowdown: Available on DVD/CD and digital formats, this  opens on an enchanting note with “Always In My Head.” From there, the British band’s the 40-minute CD features the studio release sequence front to back. It was recorded during various small shows in Los Angeles, New York, London, Sydney, Paris and Cologne, Germany between April and July 2014.

The gorgeous-looking DVD performance was shot in the round with overhead imagery in a custom-built amphitheatre at Sony Studios in LA. Some of it was seen on NBC in the US and Sky Arts in the UK. Eight intriguing music videos from Ghost Stories include two never-before-seen films for B-sides “All Your Friends” and “Ghost Story.”

An exclusive Extended Director's Cut of the “Magic” video (with a new cameo from veteran actor Peter Fonda) is among the bonus footage. “Midnight” contains a trippy reverse image. The new “Magic” footage directed by Jonas Akerlund has five minutes of acting in an old time night club with a side show magician before the music starts. The booklet includes several sepia-toned photo stills from the live show. 

Artist: The Call 
Title: A Live Tribute feat. Robert Levon Been of B.R.M.C (Lightyear) 
The lowdown: The emotional resonance of this concert runs deep. Three members of The Call - guitarist Tom Ferrier, keyboardist Jim Goodwin and drummer Scott Musick – reunited for the first time in more than a decade with Robert Levon Been, the son of their deceased former singer Michael Been. They did a few California gigs in 2013. The bulk of this great DVD/CD was shot at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, while some bonus footage came from Slim’s in San Francisco.

Half of the 15-song set is culled from the albums Red Moon and Reconciled. Opening with a moody “Everywhere I Go” that’s led by Ferrier’s chiming guitar work, Robert follows up by putting his own vocal stamp on “I Still Believe” and not straying too far from his dad’s original phrasing. The band closes with a stark emotional take on “Uncovered.”

Bonus material includes four songs from SF, including two important call numbers: “Let the Day Begin” and “The Walls Came Down.” The band is shown in rehearsals and Been says it took 1 ½ years for everything to come together. “It was a long tease.” He also tells how his dad completed the song “What’s Happened to You.” Longtime fans from the Bay Area are also interviewed about what The Call meant to them. The title is also be available as a single CD, 180-gram double vinyl and digitally (with 5 extra bonus tracks). 

The Year in Music: Best Reissues

If you've got some gift cards to spend after Christmas or are just interested in upgrading some old classics, here are my recommendations for 2014's best reissues...

Songs From the Big Chair, Tears for Fears – Spawning back to back #1 singles in America with “Shout” and Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” plus the #3 hit “Head Over Heels,” this 1985 album was the British synth-pop duo’s biggest selling effort (certified five times platinum) and one of the decade’s strongest as well.

The 2CD reissue includes B-sides, instrumentals, 7” single and video edits, remixes and long versions. In addition to the aforementioned hits, standouts include the buoyant Asian-tinged “The Marauders” and “The Way You Are,” a denser, more reverb-laden “Mother’s Talk” U.S. remix, the subtle “Sea Song.” There’s even a 7 ½ minute chat with Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, interspersed with music, where the guys speak about the inspiration behind a few songs. The excellent liner notes include several archival photos, UK music scribe Paul Sinclair’s historical overview and recent interview with the guys and drummer Chris Hughes.

For those accustomed to hearing Songs from the Big Chair on CD all these years, the 180-gram vinyl is a revelation, unveiling fresh nuances. The airy keyboards on “Shout” stand out, the three-man sax tag team sound during “The Floating Hour” drifts on a higher plane, the percolating rhythms on “Mother’s Talk” are more prevalent and the female operatic vocals in “Listen” are more noticeable.

The six-disc, deluxe edition box set adds a 5.1 surround sound version of the album mixed by Steven Wilson, Pure Audio Blu-ray Edition, two DVDs, a 30-page replica tour program and 32-page booklet.

Soul Mining, The The – Back in 1983, the post punk music that Matt Johnson crafted on his acclaimed debut as The The was frequently sinister and claustrophobic with bleak lyrics (see: opening track “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow,” “That Sinking Feeling”).

But there were also more pop-oriented tunes like the standout singles; a fiddle and accordion-laced “This is the Day” and “Uncertain Smile.” Both were mainstays on college and alternative radio stations like KROQ/106.7 FM/Los Angeles. Guests on the LP included Jools Holland, Wix (later of Paul McCartney touring band) and David Johansen of the New York Dolls.

Johnson personally oversaw the remastering of this new expanded 30th Anniversary Deluxe Vinyl Edition at Abbey Road Studios. It comes packaged in a lift off box, with an authentic reproduction of original release on a 180-gram LP and another gatefold vinyl of alternative versions and remixes. The re-mastered audio has also been dubbed from original vinyl pressings recorded from Matt Johnson’s original 1982 Thorens TD-147 gramophone player using patent ‘Dubbed-From-Disc’ technology, obtainable via a download code contained within the box set.

The funky groove, chants and Johnson’s breathy vocal on “Giant” and string instrumentation on “The Twilight Hour” both really come alive on the new LP version. On the “recollected” LP2, the 10-minute long New York 12” mix of “Uncertain Smile” has added flute, city noise and synth snatches, while the London 12” version of “Perfect” swings a bit more and “Fruit of The Heart” is a nice ethereal instrumental.

Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story?) Morning Glory, Oasis – Led by the brash and volatile Gallagher Brothers, this Manchester, UK rock band defined the mid-1990s Britpop movement. Among just a handful of acts from that wide-ranging music scene to actually translate major success to America, their first two albums went platinum and spawned five top 20 alt-rock hits here.

These expanded and remastered deluxe reissues celebrate the original 1994-95 discs in fine fashion. Housed in handsome mini-books, the liner notes are chock full of rare band and memorabilia photos and recollections of each song by the musicians. Definitely Maybe raced back up the UK sales chart last spring - a testament the group’s still-enduring popularity and influence.

During the Nineties, it was common for British acts to put out several versions of each single with different B-sides, leading diehard fans to buy some or all of them - I sure pair a pretty penny for imports by Oasis, Blur, Pulp and many others. A majority of those bonus cuts are included in the new 3CD versions. And this isn’t your typical “scraping-the-studio-barrel” type stuff either. Many of the outcast songs were easily good enough to appear on the main album.

CD2’s richly orchestrated “Whatever,” “(It's Good) To Be Free” and Noel’s strong acoustic guitar/Fender Rhodes dominated “Half the World Away” are prime examples. The same goes for “Talk Tonight,” “Acquiesce” “Rockin' Chair” and “Masterplan” on the CD2 of (What's the Story?) Morning Glory. Main songwriter Noel sings leads on pleasant acoustic guitar strummers “Sad Song,” “Take Me Away,” “D'Yer Wanna Be a Spaceman,” “Up In The Sky” and others.

The latter is given a country-ish feel with slide and 12-string guitars. The demo of “Cigarettes & Alcohol” is most notable for Liam’s vocals which contain little of the accented, stretched syllables that characterized the finished version. Elsewhere on both albums’ bonus CDs are equally intriguing, previously unreleased demos and live selections.

Reckless, Bryan Adams – A high water mark for the Canadian rocker that was certified five times platinum, this also became a defining album of the 1980s, spawning six top 20 pop hits (and another on mainstream rock radio), including the ubiquitous “Summer of ‘69.”

This new 30th Anniversary edition is available as a 2CD version with seven bonus tracks (I’ve been a fan since the beginning of Adams’ career and it’s my first time hearing them). “Let Me Down Easy” and “Teacher Teacher,” first recorded by Roger Daltrey and .38 Special, are both solid. “Too Hot to Handle” lives up to its name.”

The title track is also a good crunchy rocker in the vein of the rest. Then there’s a raucous ’85 gig at London’s Hammersmith Odeon featuring the raspy-voiced singer do material from Reckless and Cuts Like a Knife (guitarist Keith Scott’s guitar solos on the fast, frenetic “Kids Wanna Rock” and “The Only One” are highlights).

A four disc super deluxe edition comes in a DVD case-sized hardback book that includes the material above and a DVD of the Steve Barron-directed Reckless - The Movie. It weaves videos from Reckless with scenes linking the tracks. I’d love to see that since I own the old VHS copy. A Blu-Ray Pure Audio recording of the original album and a stereo mix re-mastered this year rounds out the music content. Rare photos from the studio and a conversation between Adams and cowriter Jim Vallance about the various songs is part of the packaging.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John – One of the best parts of John’s recent show at Staples Center was a clutch of songs from this classic double 1973 album, many of which have been staples of his show for decades.

The 2CD reissue contains the remastered main release sounding better than ever: the fluttering synth fanfare and high flying harmonies of “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and title track find John in glorious splendor. “All the Girls Love Alice,” with those spacey effects, really pops.

Among the nine new covers by contemporary artists, Fall Out Boy (perfectly fitting stomper “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”), Zac Brown Band (a surprisingly lush “Harmony”) and Emeli Sandé (“All the Girls Love Alice” recast as a smoldering R&B ballad) and The Band Perry (a feisty “Grey Seal” done with fiddle) fare best. Finally nine songs from a 1973 performance at the Hammersmith Odeon rounds things out. The 2CD gatefold package has all the original photos, plus other archival ones and a collage. The liner notes contain an informative essay by Alexis Petridis.

The Super Deluxe version has a DVD of Bryan Forbes’ 1973 film “Elton John and Bernie Taupin: Say Goodbye to Norma Jean and Other Things” and a 100-page illustrated hardback book with rare photos, memorabilia and a new essay containing interviews with John and Taupin.

Here are some other highly recommended reissues:

Hitchhike to Rhome, Old 97’s – Twenty years ago, the Dallas alt-country band emerged with a promising, frequently rip-roaring alt-country debut effort.

Now it is newly remixed, with eight extra tracks recorded at the same album sessions (equally strong as the main collection), plus assorted demos and unreleased songs on CD2.

Some Rhome songs have become staples of the group’s live shows in the intervening decades, like the ominous “4 Leaf Clover” and the fast bluegrass of “Doreen.” Guitarist Ken Bethea describes the process of unearthing some of the rarities in the liner notes.

Your Arsenal and Vauxhall and I, Morrissey – Part of the former Smiths frontman’s solo creative apex (the first a glam rock-leaning effort with David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson), each has a second CD featuring a concert from the same time period. 

New Jersey, Bon Jovi – Although it was just reissued a few years ago, this new 2CD version is better, thanks to bonus tracks that include the band’s cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town,” the 12 previously unreleased “Sons of Beaches” demos, complete lyrics and credits. 

Venus and Mars and Wings at the Speed of Sound, Wings – The mid-period albums from Paul McCartney’s 1970s band were both million sellers that reached the top five. And each contained a pair of big hits in “Listen to What the Man Said,” “Venus and Mars/Rock Show”; “Let ‘Em In,” “Silly Love Songs.” The second CD is filled with demos and alternate versions, while the third one is a DVD featuring music videos, adverts and behind the scenes studio and home footage. 

Wrecking Ball, Emmylou Harris – In 1995, the country legend with a voice like honey took a daring turn into experimental Americana music with Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan). The results – with Steve Earle, U2’s Larry Mullen Jr., Lucinda Williams and Neil Young along for the ride – were simply breathtaking. The outtakes on CD2 are intriguing and the DVD documentary tells how it all came together.

Further listening: 

The Day Before Wine and Roses, The Dream Syndicate

This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983, Lone Justice
Workbook 25, Bob MouldHigh Land, Hard Rain, Aztec Camera
Gentlemen, The Afghan Whigs

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Year in Music: Best Concerts

Over the course of 2014, I saw 59 concerts in California. They included the three-day Coachella Festival (33 acts), two-day Stagecoach Festival (26 acts), Make the Music Go Bang! Festival (11 acts) and MyFM's Big Night Out (5 acts). 

My top 10 most memorable performances are below. 
Photos by George A. Paul, unless indicated 

1. John Newman, Coachella #2 - Day 3, Empire Polo Field, Indio (April)

2. Jason Isbell, Stagecoach - Day 2, Empire Polo Field, Indio (April)

photo by Dave McClister

3. Tom Bailey, Retro Futura Tour, Greek Theatre, Los Angeles (August)

photo by Peter Finnegan

4. The Band Perry, Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood (October)

photo courtesy

5. Tom Odell, Coachella #2 - Day 1, Empire Polo Field, Indio (April)
photo courtesy


6. Spencer Day, The Coach House, San Juan Capistrano (June)

7. The Black Lillies, Stagecoach - Day 1, Empire Polo Field, Indio (April)

8. Keith Urban, Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre, Irvine (September)

photo by Drew A. Kelley

9. Bryan Ferry, Club Nokia, Los Angeles (April)

10. World Party, Troubadour, West Hollywood (June) 

photo by Kristi Wooten

The Year in Music: Best Albums

Some music critics and others tend to complain about not being able to pick a top 10. Yet I never have any trouble, considering the onslaught of releases out there. The problem is narrowing it down. I went back and re-listened to dozens of titles and the following ones made the strongest impact on me this year. Let me know if you agree with any and feel free to share your own here or via @GeorgeAPaul.  

Here are my choices for the 10 best studio albums of 2014 (in order)...

1. Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams

2. Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness 

3. La Petite Mort, James 

4. Drowners, Drowners 

5. Stockholm, Chrissie Hynde 

6. Soapbox, Crookes

7. Indie Cindy, Pixies 

8. The Voyager, Jenny Lewis 

9. Diamonds, Johnnyswim

10. Standards, Lloyd Cole

Best of the rest...

11. That Girl, Jennifer Nettles
12. Pure Fiction, Eric Hutchinson
13. Hurricane, Jamie Scott
14. So Long, See You Tomorrow, Bombay Bicycle Club
15. Crimson/Red, Prefab Sprout
16. Lonely Ones, Graham Colton
17. Seven Dials, Roddy Frame
18. Alveron, Wolf Gang
19. Hozier, Hozier
20. Songs of Innocence, U2

Also noteworthy: I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss, Sinead O' Connor; The Both, The Both; Snapshot, The Strypes; Avonmore, Bryan Ferry; They Want My Soul, Spoon; Dream Your Life Away, Vance Joy.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A very last minute Christmas gift guide: music DVDs

With just a few days to go before Christmas arrives, you might need some assistance to get the perfect gift. With that in mind, here are some recommended DVDs and Blu-rays for the major music enthusiast on your shopping list. Most titles are available at major music retailers like and


Artist: Depeche Mode
Title: Live in Berlin (Columbia)
The Lowdown: In 2013, the veteran British synth-rock act toured around the world in support of 13th studio album Delta Machine. Shot over the course of two German concerts at 02 World Forum late that year, this deluxe lift-off box set encompasses 2 DVDs and CDs plus a 5.1 mix on Blu-ray of the album (there is also a standalone 2CD package).

Directed by longtime visual collaborator Anton Corbijn, the 2 hour+ gig opens with the musicians in a group huddle and giving high fives as they prepare to go onstage. Lithe singer Dave Gahan, clad in shiny black leather, pirouettes across the stage to the fittingly ominous strains of “Welcome to My World.” He hops around and lifts the microphone stand skyward on “Walking in My Shoes” as transfixing shapes flash on the big screens. Gahan’s deep voice is sonorous as ever, while Martin Gore’s chugging electric guitar work make 1986’s “A Question of Time” among many highlights here.

Others include “Black Celebration,” “Enjoy the Silence” (a disturbing contortionist pileup is projected on the screens), an electrifying “Personal Jesus” (with Gore’s slow teasing guitar and a shirtless Gahan totally giving it his all), a sparse, cinematic “Halo” (accompanied by austere images), “Just Can’t Get Enough” and the usual main show closer: an extended “Never Let Me Down Again,” where the guys onstage are obviously having a good time.

DVD2 is titled “Alive in Berlin” and consists of a version of the same show combined with 15 band interviews and fan feedback (several followers say their whole life revolves around DM) and behind-the-scenes footage. The bonus material is a real trip: Gore plaintively sings “Condemnation” and “Judas” accompanied by Peter Gordeno on piano at Salon Bel Ami, an old brothel in Berlin. A mysterious bored-looking woman watches. The regular album mix on Blu-ray is crisper than on CD.

Artist: Peter Gabriel 
Title: Back to Front: Live in London (Eagle Vision) 
The Lowdown: Having caught the Southern California stop on this tour at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012 (one of my top 10 shows of that year), I was very curious to see if London was equally stunning. It was. 

No stranger to elaborate, mind-blowing staging dating back to his 1970s time in Genesis, Gabriel rarely disappoints. Directed by Hamish Hamilton and co-produced by Done+Dusted, this 2 hour, 15 minute show was filmed at over two nights at the 02 in Oct. 2013 and features 21 songs. The opening minutes find Gabriel doing a voiceover about how he has a “persona I adopt when I’m up there, which is different than my offstage persona. In some ways, it’s a mask…a means to open up and express myself.” 

Gabriel takes the 02 stage and likens the show to a fine three-course meal, with acoustic and electronic-based sets followed by the entire 1986 multi-platinum album So – performed by the original band. Playing piano, Gabriel and company put enticing new spins on “Shock the Monkey and “Come Talk to Me,” while the plugged-in “Digging in the Dirt” and “Solsbury Hill” are made even more stunning by innovative lighting. Once “Red Rain” begins, the previous gray tones turn to vibrant color. Everything is a joyous (“Sledgehammer,” “Big Time”) and intriguing (“Don’t Give Up,” “Biko,” where the band gradually stops playing one by one) ride from there. 

Bonus material includes The Visual Approach, a six-minute interview with Gabriel and tour production/lighting designer Rob Sinclair, who explain how they used a lighting rig from the original So tour (Gabriel apparently stores all his old tour gear in garages) and more details.

Artist: Genesis
Title: Three Sides Live (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: The original 1982 Three Sides Live holds a special place for me since it was the first Genesis release I owned on cassette in junior high. This past fall, the five original band members were interviewed in a room together for the first time since 1998 for BBC documentary “Together and Apart.”

A segment dealing with the late ‘70s period after Peter Gabriel and then Steve Hackett left and the remaining trio start to hit the pop and rock charts was especially interesting. That’s where Three Sides Live comes in. Shot at various venues on Genesis’ 1981 North American tour, the set list mostly focused on material off Duke and Abacab.

The concert film - available for the first time alone on DVD and for the first time ever on Blu-ray - has now been fully restored. Clocking in at 83 minutes, ample gig preparation and interview footage is shown between live songs. Phil Collins takes listener calls from a NYC radio station; he also fields in-depth questions from a journalist with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. As for the music: there are top-notch performances throughout.

Collins does a spirited delivery on “Turn it on Again” and “Abacab,” shaking maracas on the latter as Daryl Stuermer makes guitar jabs. Other standouts: the horn–laden “No Reply at All,” “Me and Sarah Jane” (the footage is from a smaller gig at NYC’s The Savoy)” and “Misunderstanding.” The bonus content includes seven audio only tracks, including three not in the main feature: “One for the Vine,” “Fountain of Salmacis,” “Follow You Follow Me.”
Artist: Yes
Title: Songs from Tsongas: 35th Anniversary Concert (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: The last major Yes tour featuring founding vocalist Jon Anderson was among their best (I can attest since I saw it at San Diego State University in 2004). Originally broadcast on PBS-TV as part of the Soundstage series, this impressive 2DVD release was filmed at UMass-Lowell’s Tsongas Center that same year. The lineup of Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White performed a technically brilliant, two-hour, 24-minute show.

A professorial Howe vigorously plays pedal steel on “Going for the One” and displays nimble guitar work on “Yours is No Disgrace” and Anderson’s vocals are enchanting as always during a celebratory “I’ve Seen All Good People” (dispatched early).    

There is some good-natured banter between the musicians and frequent crowd shots. Several ‘70s prog rock classics like “Long Distance Runaround,” “Wondrous Stories” and “Roundabout” (where Wakeman’s piano playing shines on the Chicago blues shuffle revamp) work surprisingly well in the acoustic set. 

Bonus material includes a nearly half hour performance of “Ritual” and a seven-minute 2004 interview with MSN Music about Roger Dean’s inflatable stage design. “It’s about creating an abstract world,” he says.

DVD2 encompasses a 2004 gig at the Lugano Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The rainy, outdoor 79-minute set is done sans Dean’s props and most notable for Squire and Howe’s light touch instrumental showcase on “The Fish.”
Artist: Alabama & Friends
Title: At the Ryman (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Old school country fans were excited (and justifiably so) when Alabama reunited in 2011 following an extended hiatus. After doing selected gigs, the group – minus drummer Mark Herndon - finally toured outside its native South and did a solid co-headlining set at Stagecoach Fest ’12 in Indio, Calif. The all-star tribute album Alabama & Friends album came out last year.

This companion DVD was filmed at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The picture is so sharp that you almost feel like you’re at the show. Seriously. The 90-minute set saw guests Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Trisha Yearwood, Florida Georgia Line, Jamey Johnson and The Eli Young Band all reprise their album roles live. Lead singer/guitarist Randy Owen is in a real good mood. Guitarist/fiddler Jeff Cook, on the other hand, seems like he’d rather be anywhere else.

Sublime Yearwood-assisted ballad “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go” prompted this astonished response from him: “That was the first time I forgot the words to my own song!” Bryan seems nervous during “Love in the First Degree,” but pulls it off. Johnson proves a good fit on “My Home’s In Alabama.” Owen lets the guests have the spotlight and revels in watching them. An exuberant “The Closer You Get” with The Eli Young Band is the best. Other standouts include the smooth harmonies in “Dixieland Delight/Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” audience participation amid “Song Of The South,” the poignant newer tune “All American” and romantic “Take Me Down.”

Bonus content – some of which was shown on CMT – includes “The Songs and The Stories,” “Influence and Inspiration,” “The Magic Of Alabama Live,” “Performing at the Ryman,” “The History and The Night,” “The Making of Alabama and Friends” and “Alabama Is…” with informative chats with the musicians and guests and behind the scenes footage.

Artist: Whitney Houston
Title: Live: Her Greatest Performances (Legacy)
The Lowdown: Hard to believe, but the superstar soul/pop singer never put out an official live release during her lifetime. This DVD/CD collection - culled from 17 TV specials, talk and award shows (plus a bonus music video) spanning 1983-2009 - partially fills that void.

The DVD opens with Houston mentor/record company head Clive Davis briefly talking up his new discovery on The Merv Griffin Show in 1983 before the already-posed 19-year-old sings “Home” from The Wiz. Even Johnny Carson is struck by Houston’s beauty while holding up an LP cover on The Tonight Show in 1985 prior to “You Give Good Love.”

Among the highlights on the David-produced discs: a reworked, piano only version of “The Greatest Love Of All” (from That’s What Friends Are For: Arista Records 15th Anniversary Concert,1990), the triumphant “The Star Spangled Banner” (Super Bowl XXV, 1991), which became an unexpected hit, a supremely soulful take on Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” (Welcome Home Heroes, 1991), the stunning Broadway and film medley of Medley: “I Loves You, Porgy/And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going/I Have Nothing” (Annual American Music Awards, 1994), “I’m Every Woman,” with young girl dancers and fireworks (The Concert For A New South Africa, 1994) and her best known number – “I Will Always Love You” (The Concert For A New South Africa, 1994) looking resplendent in African headdress.

Artist: Elton John
Title: The Million Dollar Piano (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: The Million Dollar Piano DVD and Blu-ray was shot in early 2012 over several nights of Elton John’s long-running residency at the Coliseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The Million Dollar Piano DVD and Blu-ray is a rousing nearly two-hour romp through decades of hits and a few surprises.

Taking the stage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the Piano Man emerges in a silver cape and sparkling black outfit as his longtime band – including bassist Bob Birch, who passed away later in 2012 - immediately rocks out to “The Bitch is Back.” From there, John does a dramatic “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” backed by string players and soulful female backing vocalists. He provides a little background on the specially built, one of a kind piano, then recalls writing “Your Song” with Bernie Taupin and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” about New York City.

“Better off Dead,” from “Captain Fantastic…” and “Indian Sunset” prominently feature percussionist Ray Cooper (a frequent tour fixture over the years). Other standouts include “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” where fans are invited onstage.

Bonus material includes a fascinating 23-minute documentary “The Making of the Million Dollar Piano,” which details how Yamaha started developing the $4 million instrument idea in 2008 and all the steps to design it. Also, a 20-minute segment with four hit songs from a 2012 concert in the Ukraine tells the story behind concerts, shows close ups of fans singing along and dignitaries watching the festivities.  

Artist: Rolling Stones
Title: From the Vault: L.A. Forum 1975 (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Part of a new series of restored archival concert releases with sound freshly mixed by Bob Clearmountain, From the Vault: L.A. Forum 1975 comes in a variety of formats: DVD, DVD/2CD, DVD/3LP and Digital Video.

The Stones were touring in support of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” when they hit the Fabulous Forum in ’75. It was first tour with new guitarist Ronnie Wood. Billy Preston, who appeared on the LP, was also along for the ride and provided keyboards/backing vocals on tour. This gig came in the middle of a five night summer stand at the venerable Inglewood arena.    

Running 2 ½ hours, the DVD finds the British legends in ok form. Pre-show activities start with promoter Bill Graham and a costumed Chinese dragon (!) twisting about. Suddenly, a glam Mick Jagger – clad in bright pink jacket and wearing eye shadow - appears atop a folding pyramid stage for “Honky Tonk Women.” All the guys share vocals on the slinky blues “You Gotta Move.” Wood does a rippin’ solo during an extended “Gimme Shelter” and Jagger playfully pushes him amid “Tumbling Dice.” Keith Richards is sloppy on his own spotlight, “Happy.” By the seemingly never-ending finale “Sympathy for The Devil,” Jagger is in crazed vocal mode and invites fans onstage for a conga line. There are plenty of hits in between.

View a video of "Star Star" from L.A Forum - Live In 1975:

Also available: From The Vault – Hampton Coliseum – Live In 1981 (this one is in SD Blu-ray as well).

Title: The Rise and Fall of the Clash (Shout! Factory)
The Lowdown: If you’re interested in post-Mick Jones, Cut the Crap-era Clash, this 96-minute documentary from 2012 fills in some of the details.

There are latter-day interviews with Jones (droll as ever), erstwhile drummer Terry Chimes as well as members from the final 1983-86 incarnation: Nick Sheppard, Pete Howard and Vince White. Much of the narrative is focused on how manager Bernie Rhodes succumbed to megalomania and eventually ruined the band. Chimes says the guys toured too much. Jones describes the band as “a bunch of idiots thrust into the spotlight.” Southern California fans will revel in footage from a troubled appearance at the US Festival ’83, where a fistfight ensued and Jones never played with them again.   

Title: Vinyl (Shout! Factory)
The Lowdown: Vinyl is a fun British music comedy about a seasoned down-and-out punk rocker that gets back together with his old bandmates for a jam session. They record it and listen back, thinking there’s a hit diamond in the rough. Since all the record companies only want to sign hot young things though, the guys recruit some in their place and watch everything take off.

The story is inspired by true events: In 2004, The Alarm’s singer/guitarist Mike Peters put out the brash “45 RPM” as The Poppy Fields and fooled the UK record industry as the single charted at #24.

Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, EastEnders, Blur’s “Park Life”) does a fine job in the lead role of Johnny Jones, as does Keith Allen (Trainspotting, 24 Hour Party People) as Jones’ reluctant former bandmate. Also noteworthy is a charismatic Jamie Blackley as the teenager front man. Both Peters and The Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle have cameos. Director Sara Sugarman (Lindsay Lohan comedy “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen”) was in a teenage band that Peters managed. The movie was shot around Wales.

Bonus material includes a five-minute featurette about the production, a music video, trailer and photo gallery.

Various Artists
Title: The Midnight Special (Time Life)
The Lowdown: Back in 1972, Grammy Awards telecast producer Burt Sugarman came up with the idea for a late live music TV show. Eccentric DJ Wolfman Jack was the presenter and frequent host on The Midnight Special, which aired at 1 a.m. on NBC following “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” There were also rotating guest hosts, with Helen Reddy taking the mantle for nearly a year. The show ran until 1981.

This latest DVD compilation is available in different configurations: an 11-disc set and 32-page collector’s book, a 6-disc set and as a single DVD. Each has new bonus material.

The six DVD set has selected highlights from 1-3 episodes each. Primarily pop, soul and mainstream rock, the highlights include: Linda Ronstadt’s plaintive “Long Long Time,” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” a energetic Hall & Oates medley of “She’s Gone/Sara Smile/Rich Girl” (with the audience sitting cross-legged on the floor!), ELO’s “Evil Woman” with a string trio, Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head,” The Cars’ “Best Friend’s Girl” (Ric Ocasek sports cool shades), Aerosmith’s “Train Kept-A-Rolling” (Steven Tyler can barely contain his enthusiasm on the small stage), Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (Debbie Harry gives her best come hither stare), Loggins & Messina’s giddy “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman” (at a soundcheck with hardly any audience), a young baby-faced Sammy Hagar on “You Make Me Crazy,” AC/DC, Alice Cooper, The Kinks, Bee Gees and many more.    

A featurette on Wolfman has recent interviews with acts on the show and it’s interesting to see the camera work evolve from extreme artist close ups in the early years to more panoramic shots. 

Artist: Justin Hayward
Title: Live at the Buckland Theatre, Atlanta (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Last year, the voice of The Moody Blues toured in support of the solo album Spirits of the Western Sky – his first in 17 years. On this DVD, Blu-ray, CD, and digital release, Hayward explains the genesis of many songs onstage in Georgia as director David Minasian unusually intercuts the proceedings with archival photos.

The 98-minute show opens with sonorous 1960s classic “Tuesday Afternoon.” Backed by a trio of musicians, the British veteran performs from his vast catalog of hits, rock radio staples and pleasant newer folk-based tunes. A sprightly “Your Wildest Dreams,” idyllic English story “Forever Autumn” (a #5 European single from 1978), the galloping “Question” where the crowd claps vigorously, “Nights in White Satin” (Hayward has no problem with the high vocal bits) and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” are standouts.

Bonus material consists of an hour-long documentary with behind the scenes tour footage and fan interviews. Of the tour, Hayward says, “there’s a sweetness and sensitivity now that I’ve never been able to achieve with The Moodys…this is what I’ve always dreamed of. I can hear every nuance of the vocals. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve done.”

Artist: Jason Isbell
Title: Live at Austin City Limits (Southeastern)
The Lowdown: Before watching this stellar ACL episode on PBS-TV, I had read about Isbell’s post-Drive-By Truckers solo work, but never actually heard any of it. That all changed afterward. I immediately sought out the Americana artist’s excellent award-winning 2013 album Southeastern and predecessor, Here We Rest.

Isbell’s 15-song ACL performance with his band The 400 Unit includes material from both those releases. It is at various times captivating, heart-wrenching and just plain rocking (especially the humorous “Super 8” and set capping take on the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”). Highly recommended.