Monday, November 30, 2009

The BEST and WORST Holiday Albums EVER

There are a ton of holiday albums out there, with more and more coming out every year...everything from the cool and kid-friendly Burl Ives singing "Frosty the Snow Man" to something obscure and horrific, I'm sure.

That being said, I don't seek out many "new" holiday albums, as I tend to cling to childhood memories or old familiar ways.

But I do have a definite favorite that I throw on...and also one that I loathe beyond words.

So then, let's start with the good stuff first.

The award for "The BEST holiday album of all-time" goes to Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas, put out in the 1997 by various rock artists.

This album has some great quality tunes on it, and provides a potpourri of variety; from rocking renditions to acoustic layered compositions. It features some classic guitarists from Jeff Beck and Eric Johnson to Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai.

It also showcases my favorite Canadian son, Alex Lifeson, in a somber and moving acoustic version of "The Little Drummer Boy" that builds in layers to a beautiful spectrum of acoustic guitars. I remember thinking at the time that the song was as interesting of a choice as the way it was played with delicate sensitivity, and couldn't help but notice how it was chosen and arranged on the heels of Neil Peart losing his daughter Selena in a car accident the summer before. All said, the song showcases Lifeson's acoustic guitar work as good -- if not better -- than any Rush project.

Now, let's let the freak show begin...the award for "The Most Annoying Holiday Music EVER" goes to Manheim Steamroller's Christmas Celebration, which came out in the early 1980s (ya think?) and has since been reissued.

This thing is so ridiculously dated it's embarrassing to write about, let alone throw on in the CD changer. It's a bloodbath of synthesizer cheese, to say the least.

I believe the 80s revival of elevator music can be traced back to the release of this album, because all the elevator music lovers went running in screams of horror back to their favorite section after hearing this abonimation of Christmas music.

In particular, "Deck the Halls," the one that was popular on the radio (and still can be heard, unfortunately) is especially annoying. I believe the last time I heard it, cheese bled from my ears...literally.

To add to the annoyance, I have a family member who loves the stuff. Relishes in it. Friggin' bathes in I just tolerate it and enjoy the "fest o' cheddar."

Happy holiday shopping, everyone!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

No-Man live -- after 20 years as a band

I've mentioned before in this blog that the best-kept secret in the rock format today is Steven Wilson out of Britain, and all the incarnations of his artistry in the form of various bands such as Blackfield, Bass Communion, IEM, and as a solo artist...all very different from one another.

Frankly, it's very puzzling how Wilson isn't better known; almost to the effect that the scenario drums up large label conspiracy theories. This argument could be validated by the way Wilson works out of his home studio dubbed "No Man's Land" and purposefully avoids the big labels by conducting as an independent songwriter, arranger, musician, recording engineer, and through many of the other album production roles typically segmented and spread out among various individuals under the guise of a large label.

It appears that about the only thing Wilson doesn't handle is distribution. He's as much of a one-man show in music as you'll ever find. If one considers the variety of talent Wilson brings to the table, there could even be an argument for Rock Hall accolades...but unfortunately he just isn't that well known.

Most who are familiar with Wilson's work know him as the brains behind Porcupine Tree...but few realize that he was in a band called No-Man back when PT was merely an idea. No-Man has evolved over the years as a progressive pop/electronica/rock act, and is a living breathing entity to this day.

The band just released their first live DVD Mixtaped, which can be ordered through the band's independent distributor Burning Shed. The DVD features a second disc with an interesting documentary on the band, and some videos you might recall from late night MTV or VH1 in the mid-90s.

Here's a cut from it. If after some time it gets pulled off the web or something, check out the personal videos from the Savoy Theater by You Tube poster 'lahemi.' It appears this individual personally recorded the whole gig.

Of course Steven Wilson is the lead guitarist fella (wearing glasses) to the left. The singer Tim Bowness, who comes across as a breathy cross between Brian Ferry and Rick Astley, might take a little getting used to -- but he grows on long as you don't get Rickroll'd (or even better, Barackroll'd!!!)

Friday, November 13, 2009

THE STAGE HECKLER: Gin Blossoms' Greatness Goes Beyond the Music

What you see here is the set list from tonight's live performance, courtesy of the Gin Blossoms. I grabbed it at the end of the gig, much to the amazement of 20 onlookers with the "I didn't know you could do that!" look on their face.

Grabbing the set list is the ultimate souvenir in many ways. It's hand-crafted by the band for just that show (printed from a computer, but you know what I mean), and typically reveals quirks or things they were considering playing that they didn't, such as the "Cajun Song" that you see on the list...and if you're lucky, and it was on the ground, you might get the guitarist's shoe print on it...or someone's spit. Or worse.

I'm always amazed how many other attendees don't think to ask, as tonight I was the only one inquiring to a roadie about it. He nodded, knelt down in front of where guitarist Jesse Valenzuela had been playing on stage right, removed the tape, and handed it over. No problem. I think that's the fourth set list I've been part of grabbing...there was Live in 1994, Matthew Sweet in 1996, Ratt a couple weeks ago, and now the Gin Blossoms.

Now let's talk about the band.

They might be touring the casino circuit these days, and they might be leaning heavily on material from their signature album, 1992's New Miserable Experience, for their live set...but this band from Tempe, Arizona -- now going on 20 years strong -- are survivors.

The sound of the Gin Blossoms is timeless in some ways, but also heavily rooted in the Tempe bar scene of the late 1980s & early 90s around the Arizona State campus. I should know, as I was attending ASU during those exact years that the Blossoms flourished from bars like Long Wong's, which has sadly since been demolished as Mill Avenue literally erased any sign of its history block after block (when Tempe whored out what remained of its soul to development interests in the late 90s -- Long Wong's...Bandersnatch...Cannery Row...the list goes on -- but that's a long story for another day). They'd also play local frat houses until they turned into a worldwide touring act. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform at several parties back in the day.

Seeing them live tonight conjured up many of the influences from back in the day that one might overlook, but are rather obvious if you know their music. The Stones and R.E.M. seemed to be the most obvious...the interplay between the two guitarists, Jesse Valenzuela and Scotty Johnson, echoed elements of the duo of Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Lead singer Robin Wilson seemed to have a mic & stage style in the likeness of Michael Stype. He handed his tambourine to someone in the audience to play along, and sang into someone's cell phone on a couple of occasions. It was amazing how much he sounded like Elton John when they played "Rocket Man" in the encore.

The Blossoms are one of those bands born to play live. They shine and thrive in the live setting, and very much have a live sound even in their studio recordings.

In their early days, there were years of hiccups, false starts, and the difficulty of getting known beyond the Tempe scene. Between the long frustration of trying to get on with a major record label, losing their co-founder /guitarist /main songwriter Nicky Hopkins to alcohol and eventually a suicide in 1993 (as the melancholy lyrics and feel of Experience reveals much of his illness), and after surviving a breakup in the late 90s, these guys appear to be back and stronger than ever. A new album is due out in 2010.

The most impressive thing about this band, however, is their character and heroism...which comes from an incident that occurred in 1994. Every August, when students start the fall semester at ASU, a popular activity is to raft down the Salt River. Unfortunately there can be lots of accidents on the river, and to/from the river, caused by drinking or recklessness. That fall, a female student was severely injured in a motorcycle accident enroute to the river and didn't have medical while she lay recovering in a local hospital, the band got together to put on a benefit concert at Long Wong's bar in Tempe. The result was thousands of dollars raised through donations to help pay for the girl's medical bills...and remember, this is 1994...interesting context to current times.

If that isn't the mark of greatness, I don't know what is. The music of the Gin Blossoms is timeless and a personal sentiment, as they are part of the soundtrack to some incredible and memorable college years...but I believe it's that single act of thoughtfulness and heroism that defines them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

FROM THE VAULT -- Neil Young & Pearl Jam Rockin' the Free World

With Neil Young just celebrating his 64th birthday, here's a little ditty of him with Pearl Jam. I'd guess this took place in the mid-90s, around the time of Young's Mirror Ball collaboration with Vedder & Co.

Remember to put the music machine at the top of the page on pause...and as a prize for doing so, you get to witness some instrument destruction at the end of the video.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

THE STAGE HECKLER: Falling Victim to a Ruse to See...Ratt? Yep!

I got dragged to it, I swear!

Yep, I ate my 80s hair metal on Halloween night with the Snoqualmie Casino up I-90. A casino for Ratt, huh? How appropriate.

I really shouldn't complain, as I did get to see them for my buddy needed someone to go with and covered the $30 ticket...but here I am.

Still complaining about it.

It actually ended up being three of us, as a third fella (a former co-worker of my buddy's) suddenly showed up and drove to it in a torrential downpour...I guess he was the backup plan in case I couldn't get talked into going, but I didn't put much thought into it until the day after when I was recalling the series of events.

Ratt is one of my buddy's favorite bands...but you must know something's out of place with the appeal of your band when you have to:

  1. Use trickery and deception to get your friend to go to it with you.
  2. Have a backup person to fall into the ruse if your first person fails to fall for it or bails on you.
  3. Pay for both friends to attend the gig you designed the ruse around.


I'm not a bubble gum rocker, but the show was pretty least they seemed like they'd rehearsed a bit and they weren't out of tune. It was of course Stephen Pearcy and the original guitarist, whose name doesn't come to mind. K.K. Downing? No, that's Judas Priest...Robbie Robertson? No, that's The Band (wow, I'm really out of it)...I guess I could look it up right now, here on the computer, but I'm too lazy to right now. Pathetic, huh?

So I'm trying to think who I listen to regularly who comes the closest to this band...hmm...Kiss maybe? And I'm not a super big fan of them either. Maybe Aerosmith? Not a big fan either.

I guess I don't really listen regularly to anything remotely close to Ratt. Oh well.

I tried to keep an open mind...yet here I am, apologetically putting up a post about the damn thing, as if I've been a bad doggie who pooped in the corner of the living room, and I'm expecting to get swatted at any moment.

They played all their "classics," if you want to call 80s bubble gum rock "classic." They went through their whole Out of the Cellar album from the early 80s with hits like "Round and Round" and "Come On Feel the Noise." Kidding! That's Quiet Riot...I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

There was lots of leather there, but unfortunately no screaming girls on the shoulders of their boyfriends showing off their shaking breasts to the panties thrown onstage, either. Oh well...but Pearcy did seem to be bragging about how he's had his share of women over the years, and thought that he saw some out in the audience...or some with kids, whom he also seemed to take responsibility for.

Uh, can you say ick? ...and why would you brag about that when you're a burnout 80s rocker in your 50s, is that all you have to hold onto in the way of amusement? Your slutty rocker seed being sent spawning into random countless netherregions? God, I hope not.

That was pretty much the highlight of the evening...besides the man who won the women's sexiest Halloween costume contest, and the drunk girl at the beer line who seemed to be hitting on me...uh, no thanks rocker Betty. What else was a highlight...oh, the fact that I couldn't stop recalling the first time I heard a Ratt tune on the radio in 1984, and thought for the longest time it was a Judas Priest song. Goes to show you how much I know.

Trust me...I'll be sticking mainly to what I know on this blog...but just wanted to chime in with this random complaint about 80s hair metal live in 2009. I realize I'm probably coming across as a metal uppity.

Guilty as charged.

I will bathe, swim, and be drunk in my sea of 80s metal snobbery...because usually I find this 3 minute cheesefest 80s metal singles crap to be cheaper than the stank of Hello Kitty girl's perfume you find in the young women's section of Macy's. On most days I'd rather bloodlet my ears with leaches...don't believe me? Watch me do it.

Every now and then, however, I'll tolerate it...and consider even slightly indulging in it for one night...but only for a good friend, and only after a few beers...BUT then don't bug me with it until the NEXT TIME it's the in the 2080s.

But, you ask, "Won't you be dead by then?"

God I hope point exactly.