Blu-ray Review “Phil Collins: Live at Montreux 2004”

Starring: Phil Collins
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distributed by: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Blu-ray (1 disc) & DVD (2-disc set)
Total Running Time: 231 minutes

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In the beginning…there was Genesis. And they had a drummer. And he was a good drummer.

Yes…it’s easy to forget that the drummer for Genesis – throughout their Peter Gabriel-fronted early progressive rock era and the subsequent trio-based years – was Phil Collins. In fact, it’s easy to completely forget that he’s a drummer at all, given the incredible number of pop hits he managed to dish out over the course of his decades-long solo career in which he was primarily known for his singing voice and the slew of MTV-era music videos that rarely showed him behind a kit.

“Phil Collins: Live at Montreux 2004” immediately seizes the opportunity to remind us that the guy is a powerhouse percussionist. Instead of starting the show by jumping into the role of the chart-topping solo vocalist, he takes a seat on the drummer’s throne and bashes away at a solo that’s impressive in its own right. But wait…there’s more! Another drummer joins in to make things more rhythmically complex.  And by the time a third drummer joins in, the whole affair has become a joyous bombastic escapade that leaves Phil covered with sweat and a beaming smile.  And he hasn’t even sung a single note yet.

As soon as the drumming circle concludes, Collins takes center stage and the journey through his greatest hits begins. Even though his solo career often produced some corny clunkers (you know the wer-HERRRRD: sus-sus-sudio!) and sappy ballads, it’s undeniable that so many of his hits are damn good songs. (Go ahead. Just try to not get into the groove of “I Missed Again” and “Easy Lover”. I dare you.)

Of course, the delivery of the 24-song live set has a lot to do with a 16-member backing band that is comprised of some truly amazing musicians – some of whom have been with Collins for quite some time. They’re quite a versatile lot that knows how to propel energetic songs and recede during quieter ballads such as “A Groovy Kind of Love” and “Against All Odds”. Collins has a little trouble hitting the highest of highs that were present on the original studio tracks, but he and his musical crew have such a command of solidly delivering the material that it doesn’t matter. Phil’s dynamic energy is invigorating and his ability to jump from being a smooth crooner to a jump and jiver is so effortless that it’s hard not to get engrossed in his performance. But, above all else, it seems like he’s still having a grand time singing songs that he’s performed countless times over the decades.

Even though the 2-hour plus 2004 show easily provides more than enough material to satisfy, a 13-song 1996 show that was also recorded at Montreux is also included. Looking at the track list, it seems that the vast majority of the tracks from this gig are redundant with the ones that are included in the 2004 concert.  This immediately begs the question “Why even bother including it at all?” But, from note one, it becomes quite clear why it has been added: all of the songs are big band-style reinterpretations of Phil’s solo songs along with some Genesis and classic jazz covers thrown in for good measure. As a result, many songs are performed sans vocals and, because it’s a Montreux Jazz Festival show, special guest appearances by legendary performers happen throughout. David Sanborn lends his supreme saxophone skills to handle the vocal line of “In the Air Tonight”, Quincy Jones conducts a group of orchestral musicians and the one-and-only Tony Bennett adds his unmistakable swagger to the jazz standard “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”. Sure, some of the instrumental versions of the slower ballads might better suited for the confines of an elevator, but everybody onstage – including drummer Phil – seems to be having such a blast transforming Collins’ songs, that the program manages to be a lot of fun even during its sleepiest moments.  The audio quality of the entire 1996 show, however, has some MAJOR problems.  But we’ll cover that soon enough…

“Phil Collins: Live at Montreux” is available as a one-disc Blu-ray and a two-disc DVD set. The 2004 show was filmed in high-definition (1080i), so the Blu’s image quality is far superior to the DVD’s. The 1996 show was recorded in standard definition and, as such, there’s not much of an appreciable visual difference between the two editions for this segment of the program. Unfortunately, even though the big band show should be presented in 4:3, it defaults to 16:9 during playback which makes Phil and his cohorts appear short and wide. Be sure to pop your TV/monitor into 4:3 to correct this technical error: those “annoying black bars” on the left and right of the screen help to make the show look more like a concert and less like an Oompa Loompa outtake from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”.

The audio options for the Blu-ray and the DVD are pretty much what we’ve come to expect from live concert discs: Dolby Digital 5.1 for both, DTS-HD for the Blu and standard DTS for the DVD. All are sufficient for the 2004 show, although the drum track (especially the low-end of the kick drum) seems a little less defined and present in the mix than one would hope for and expect and the bass track is rather heavy and is frequently somewhat muddy. On the whole, it’s quite listenable and will probably only bug audiophile listeners. The audio for the 1996 show,  for any set of ears, leaves a lot to be desired as it gets jarringly compressed and distorted – even on the Blu-ray – when the band’s dynamics reach a loud fever pitch.  Just because Phil himself states at the beginning of the 1996 show that “We’re going to play my shit…but differently” doesn’t mean that it should sound like shit. How a glitch this major made it past Eagle Rock Entertainment’s mastering engineers and quality control department is beyond comprehension.

Despite these technical shortcomings, the 2004 part of “Phil Collins: Live at Montreaux 2004” is easily the best Phil Collins greatest hits collection on the market and should please long-time fans as well as those two or three living beings in the animal kingdom who aren’t familiar with his music. Given that Collins retired from performing soon after this show, it’s great to have a most-filling (although not always aurally satisfying) retrospective that showcases a truly talented singer and – lest we forget – one hell of a drummer.


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Book Review “Dead Letters: The Very Best Grateful Dead Fan Mail”

Author: Paul Grushkin
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Voyageur Press
Release Date: October 22, 2011

Our Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

There are rock bands. There are rock legends. There are rock phenomena. And then, there’s the Grateful Dead.

Within the group’s thirty-year history, the Dead performed 36,504 songs at 2,318 shows. Far more impressive than the band’s numerical statistics, though, is the legion of fans whose devotion to the band was unlimited and propelled them down endless cross-country golden roads to see as many GD concerts as possible. To merely refer to them as a “fan base” is like calling the Mona Lisa just another painting. Indeed, the Dead didn’t just create a following – they created a culture of Deadheads that always turned on the hippie vibe and tuned into to the swirling jam vibe that the band dropped out at them throughout shows that rarely went less than three hours in length.

As the Dead’s fan-base grew from the beginning days of the acid tests to larger venues like San Francisco’s Fillmore to selling out massive stadiums, obtaining tickets to their shows became increasingly more difficult. Grateful Dead Ticket Sales (GDTS) was formed in 1983 to deal with this demand – and to ensure that Deadheads would have dibs on the best face-value tickets to each show. The organization predominantly operated as a mail-order entity to which fans would send their requests for tickets to specific shows on selected dates. As a result, thousands upon thousands of envelopes poured into the GDTS’s offices, many adorned with sprawling psychedelic artwork that often spanned the entire envelope – front and back – and left not a single spec of white space. A large portion of these letters featured graphical symbols that were associated with the band: dancing bears, skeletons and the iconic “Steal Your Face” skull-with-lightning-bolt logo. Looking through the images in the book is like peering into the collective unconscious shared by the fans and the band. Also included is a hand-written letter from Jerry Garcia to a fan, in response to the fan’s question, which is interesting to read.

Paul Grushkin’s “Dead Letters: The Very Best of Grateful Dead Fan Mail” presents over 300 of these micro-masterpieces in fourteen chapters that are organized by visual theme rather than chronological order. It’s a sprawling and beautiful tome that more than adequately documents the phenomenon that the GDTS inadvertently created and is fascinating and engaging as a skim-through coffee-table book or as a full-on read. And while the artwork is clearly the focal point of the book, Grushkin’s accompanying text provides an informative and enjoyable history of the Grateful Dead and insight into the behind-the-scenes activity that helped the legacy endure.

Even though “Dead Letters” will turn up at bookstores and online in the category of “music” books, it’s also a sweeping romance that chronicles the love between flocks of Deadicated followers and the band they adored.


Many thanks to my dear friend (and long-time Deadhead)
Donna Marland for her contributions to this article.

Concert Review: Thomas Dolby “Time Capsule Tour” Ridgefield, CT

Thomas Dolby
“Time Capsule Tour”
The Ridgefield Playhouse, Ridgefield, CT
March 31, 2012

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

“I keep hearing about artists who have made a big comeback album after 2 years. Try two decades.”

Yes, indeed: it’s been 20 years since Thomas Dolby released his last disc comprised of original material, 1992’s “Astronauts & Heretics”. And it’s been 30 years since the release of his signature hit song, “She Blinded Me With Science”, in 1982.

None of the elapsed decades seemed to make any difference whatsoever at the Ridgefield Playhouse stop of Thomas’ appropriately-named “Time Capsule” tour, though. Throughout the entire show, Dolby more than adequately proved that his abilities as both a musician and a songwriter have not diminished one iota over the course of time that he’s been largely absent from the music scene. And he’s still one hell of a storyteller, both in terms of lyrics and between-song recollections and anecdotes that are full of his distinct British wit and accessible sophistication.

Even though Dolby may be dismissed by most as an 80’s one-hit-wonder, his musical catalog has always showcased a myriad of musical styles and influences – all of which he handles with a degree of mastery that makes each foray its own wonderful little aural journey. The cross-section of songs played in Ridgefield readily displayed this as Dolby bounced from quiet piano ballads (“Love is a Loaded Pistol”) to ethereal jazz crooning (“The Flat Earth”) and even some toe-tappin’ knee-slapping country bluegrass (“The Toad Lickers”).

Unlike his one-man “Sole Inhabitant” tour in 2006 in which he surrounded himself on three sides with an array of techogadgetry and delivered songs entirely synthesized, Dolby brought along a backing band this time around. Comprised of drummer Matt Hector and guitarist Kevin Armstrong (with occasional appearances by opening act bluegrass musicians Aaron Jonah Lewis and Ben Belcher), his musical entourage added the right level of instrumentation to Dolby’s songs – never overpowering the maestro’s keyboards but never slipping too far into the background as to become irrelevant.

The 110-minute, 16-song set concert touched upon all of five of his studio releases, including his most-recent release, “A Map of the Floating City”. There was even time for one mega-obscurity: 1986’s collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Field Work”, a song that had never appeared on a Dolby album until the 2009 reissue of his debut disc, “The Golden Age of Wireless”. And, of course, a little bit of “Science” was thrown in for good measure.

It’s refreshing to have Dolby back on the scene performing music that’s every bit as powerful as it was decades ago as well as new material that easily matches the caliber of his earlier work. In a day and age that seems to produce so few virtuoso musicians, Dolby’s “Time Capsule” is a pill that, when taken, reminds us how rich and rewarding pop music can be when prescribed by someone as gifted as he genuinely is. One can only hope that Thomas doesn’t go on another multi-year sabbatical. I’m going to need a refill sooner than that.

To read Dave’s interview with Thomas Dolby, please click here.
To read Dave’s review of Thomas Dolby’s “A Map of the Floating City”, please click here.

For more information about Thomas Dolby, visit

Blu-ray Review “The B-52’s with the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA”

Starring: The B-52’s
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Run Time: 131 minutes (including extras)

Our Score: 3 out of 5 stars

I doubt I’ll ever forget watching Saturday Night Live with my dad the evening of January 26th, 1980. He and I were huge fans of the show and tuned in weekly to check out the latest hysterical skits performed by Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and other classic-era cast members. But when host Teri Garr introduced musical guests the B-52’s, an interesting thing happened: my dad’s face became one that fully epitomized “WTF?” and mine expressed unbridled awe of the band’s whacked fashion and spasmodic party vibe. Yep…on that night, the generation gap was in full effect. The baton had been passed. Along with the tanning butter.

As the members of the B-52’s state in an interview that is included on their new DVD/Blu-ray “The B-52’s with the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA”, that SNL gig was the career-changer that catapulted them from being a quirky band with something of a cult following to one that suddenly was moving truckloads of their self-titled debut album. The interview is a fascinating one that allows all four band members – Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland – to tell the story of how the four musicians got together and eventually became one of the most well-known – and arguably the best – party band that rock and roll has ever seen. Throughout the half-hour bonus feature, we’re treated to so many pictures from the B-52’s scrapbook that “interview” is something of a misnomer: it’s an exceptionally well-produced and edited short-form documentary that leaves very few stones unturned, including the life and death of original guitarist and band cornerstone, Ricky Wilson.

The main event of the Blu-ray, though, is the 34th anniversary concert filmed in their hometown of Athens, GA. As the disc’s case states, they have managed to assemble a wild crowd that is all costumed up and ready to party out of bounds. When the 52’s hit the stage, they launch into the energetic “Pump” from their 2008 release “Funplex”. It gets the party started quickly and proves that, even after more than 30 years of dancing their mess around, they still can create music that’s just as fun as that on their first LP, which hit stores in 1979. By the time the 90-minute show concludes, they have delivered 20 of their most popular songs (“Roam”, “Rock Lobster” and – of course – “Love Shack”) as well as fan-fave classics (“Planet Claire”, “Mesopotamia”, “52 Girls” and even “Strobe Light”). The tunes are still jumpin’ and are delivered with all of the energy and vitality of the original album tracks. On a sonic level, the Blu-ray is immaculate regardless of which of the three audio options is selected by the viewer: DTS HD Master Audio, Dolby Digital 5.1 or LPCM Stereo.  The 1080i high-definition video is crisp and clean throughout.

Where “Wild Crowd!” falls short, though, is that said wildness is…well…pretty much exclusive to the crowd.   Even though the B-52’s  still seem to enjoy what they do, the performers themselves are fairly static and don’t move around the stage much.  Throughout the entire show, Fred is in the dead center flanked by Kate and Cindy.  And that’s about it.  There’s some banter between songs, but it’s so generic that most of it could conceivably be used at any stop of any tour. Given that the show this Blu-ray documents is a momentous anniversary show – and that this is a band whose outlandish costumes and eccentric showmanship used to rival those of Devo and other avant garde weirdies – it’s a shame that the disc’s visual content winds up being its most uninteresting component.  The crowd does their cosmic thing and shakes their honey buns non-stop. The band should oblige their enthusiasm but unfortunately becomes a bit of a deadbeat club.


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CD Review: Marco Machera “One Time, Somewhere”

Marco Machera
“One Time, Somewhere”
Innsbruck Records
Tracks: 9
Running Time: 34 minutes

Our Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Imagine an album that has elements of King Crimson, Tom Petty, Nirvana, Mike Oldfield, and – just for good measure – some Ennio Morricone. Got all that? Now imagine blending all of it together and somehow having it work. Italian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Marco Manchea’s stunning debut disc, “One Time, Somewhere”, accomplishes this difficult feat and, while his influences can easily be discerned, he firmly makes the music his own and delivers one of the most impressive debut albums in recent memory.

Marco lulls the listener into “One Time, Somewhere” with the opening track, “Hello”. He starts simple and slowly adds layers to the song – including an array of percussive bleeps and blips courtesy of current King Crimson drummer, Pat Mastelotto – and then allows the song to blossom into a lush sonic landscape. It’s a wonderful song – but Machera’s got a wide array of styles to explore within the eight tracks that follow the lead-off cut. In fact, by the album’s final three cuts (which are presented as a multi-part instrumental), he’s taken us on a journey that stops off in so many starkly different lands that each warrants a stamp in a musical passport. The only disappointment is that after 34 minutes, the CD spins to a stop.

Machera’s managed to assemble some impressive players to help him out in this freshman effort including Mastelotto, Rob Fetters (The Bears), Francesco Zampai and multi-media savant Mark Kostabi. Despite this, none of the songs feel like they hinge on one musician’s performance as it all balances perfectly track after track after track – something that is aided by the album’s pristine production. It’s a great-sounding record that amply allows the wide range of atmospheric dynamics to ring throughout, be it in brash bassier moments or quiet ones in which Marco plays delicate instruments like a toy piano (I did mention Mike Oldfield, right?).

Given the rich density of “One Time, Somewhere”, it would be interesting to hear how its roster of songs would play live. There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the arrangements Marco comes up with will work well within the context of a live performance. He’s a consummate musician with such a sharp sense of overall composition and minute detail that the material will likely shine Every Time, Everywhere.

Track Listing:
1. Hello
2. Stories Left Untold
3. Days of Summertime
4. Bright Lights Big Cities
5. El Muerto!
6. Down Below
7. Gotzen-Dammerung
8. Hire Her
9. Troubled Childhood

CD Review: Ned Evett “Treehouse”

Ned Evett
Raging Krill Records
Running Time: 50 minutes
Tracks: 14

Our Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ned Evett’s “Treehouse” serves up a hearty bowlful of Americana that, while largely satisfying , could use a little more garnish. The entire album more than readily displays Evett’s full menu of guitar styles allows him to comfortably situate himself within the mix of his self-penned songs. The problem is that, despite all of the versatility, none of them successfully demonstrate that he’s a master of any one type of genre or that he’s a particularly gifted songwriter. On many of the tracks, he seems to be dipping his toe into the pool rather than diving in and coming up with exceptionally memorable music. Because of this, “Treehouse” ultimately winds up being a “ho-hum, that’ll do” toe-tapper appetizer that isn’t as tasty or filling as it really should be.

The album’s opening track, “Pure Evil”, gets things off to a kick-ass rockin’ and rollin’ start. With its choppy rhythm guitar line and raging backbeat, Ned’s vocal fluctuates between being a gravelly growler and a howling bluesman a la “Tom Waits meets George Thorogood”. All of the ingredients work and the track winds up being a spicy barn-burner that hoots and howls its way to a flourish of an ending.

Evett stays in straightforward rock mode for the five songs that follow “Pure Evil” but none scorch like the opening track. They’re good but only serve as a catch-and-release for what could and probably should have been a hook, line and sinker.

Ned abruptly switches gears mid-way through the album and dishes up a smorgasbord of songs that ground themselves with folk roots. “Mars River Delta 2128”’s two-minute acoustic intro of displays the virtuosity of his playing ability after which the song jumps into bluegrassy knoll that is again fun but truly not unique. The remaining acoustic numbers are a bit too derivative to be riveting – the title track being somewhat of an exception.

He jumps back into rocker boy mode for the final two tracks, “Dead on Saturday Night” and “Don’t Despair”, the latter of which points out what’s been much needed throughout the whole record: some augmentation and aural layering that would pull the tracks from relative mediocrity and into being something that’s truly his own. The simplicity of “Treehouse” is all well and good, but it’s never really all that alluring and engaging. This is somewhat surprising given that King Crimson’s guitar wizard, Adrian Belew, is the production master of “Treehouse”. Belew does contribute to a couple of the tracks – piano and guitar to one and “alarm clock” to the other – but had he joined in to provide some backing harmonies or guitar accompaniment, it would have added texture and flavor to an otherwise semi-bland dish.

In the end, “Treehouse” has so much potential to be an exceptional record that it’s frustrating to hear it fall short. Evett’s indeed chosen a good solid limb for his “Treehouse” but he just needs a little more imagination to make it stand out from what all of the other kids in the neighborhood have built.

Track Listing:
1. Pure Evil
2. Falling in Line
3. Break My Fall
4. Nightmare and a Dream Come True
5. Sayonara Serenade
6. Just About Over This Time
7. Mars River Delta 2128
8. Bend Me
9. Treehouse
10. Say Goodbye for Both of Us
11. Why can’t I believe
12. Getting Over Someone Too
13. Dead On a Saturday Night
14. Don’t Despair

DVD Review “Talking Heads: Chronology”

Starring: Talking Heads
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Run Time: 109 minutes

Our Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“We want to make our mark on music history.”
~ Tina Weymouth, Talking Heads bassist, 1979

For Tina to have expressed this wish within the context of an interview is not really all that surprising given the success that Talking Heads had already achieved in the four short years following their inception in 1975. But what IS surprising is where the interview took place – not in the basement bowels of NYC’s legendary CBGB’s or a “new wave” club, but on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

“Talking Heads: Chronology” allows the viewer to see this clip of bizarrely juxtaposed elements as well as 17 others, most of which are previously unreleased. These excepts range from their early beginnings as a CBGB’s-based trio all the way up to a 1983 clip from Saturday Night Live as well as a spot-on performance of “Life During Wartime” from the 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Overall, “Chronology” is an amazing compilation of archival footage that allows us to see the development of a band that was clearly making its mark on music history from square one.

What’s even better about the disc is the optional commentary track that features all four Heads – David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison. It’s a joy to hear each of them reacting to their younger selves, reflecting on the group’s musical journey and sharing amusing behind-the-scenes stories and bits of trivia. The only minor issue with the track is that each band member’s comments were recorded separately, so it lacks what undoubtedly would have been great banter between the long-estranged band mates had they been in the same room. Regardless, this secondary track adds a level of depth to the collection of clips and helps to make “Chronology” markedly more substantial than most music video DVD compilations.

The disc also includes a 35-minute segment from 1979 that is culled from the London-based “South Bank Show”. This – almost more than the 18 music clips – is essential viewing. The interviews with the band members provide tremendous insight into what made Talking Heads a truly great band and the rehearsal footage shows the unique dynamic of a group that could instantly lock into their own groovy vibe and let the strange and wonderful wizardry happen. It’s also full of truly endearing moments such as Jerry Harrison’s creative solution to forgetting a rhythm guitar line: pulling out a copy of the studio album that the track appeared on, dropping the needle into the vinyl and playing along with it. The entire South Bank segment is quite riveting and really should have been integrated into and prefaced the main content of the DVD. Unfortunately, it’s been relegated to merely being a bonus feature that most viewers are likely to skip over and never see. The other bonus feature, a David Byrne interview from 1978, doesn’t really offer up anything that isn’t covered in the South Bank segment – save for proving that Byrne can handle the noxious haze generated by a chain-smoking interviewer without coughing or decking him.

As one could reasonably expect, the DVD’s overall image quality is variable as a result of the source material and is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio.  The archival clips, however, sound amazingly good: the disc’s Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is quite dynamic and punchy (only the two CBGB’s clips from 1975 are a bit distorted and thin).  The DVD is available in two editions: a standard-issue disc and a deluxe edition that adds a 48-page hardcover book featuring an essay by Lester Bangs.

“Chronology” is a wonderfully-crafted gem that shines not only as a vital supplement to any established Heads fan’s collection but as a great introduction for generations that may have completely missed out on the band’s musical magic. It’s clear that the creators of this DVD very much love the group that the project chronicles and aren’t just out to make a quick buck from nostalgia seekers. But, more so, they know and truly appreciate the fact that truly amazing artists like Talking Heads only come around once in a lifetime.

Blu-ray Review “Owl City: Live from Los Angeles”

Starring: Owl City (Adam Young et al)
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Run Time: 110 minutes

Our Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

“Owl City: Live from Los Angeles” is like finding the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka bar. With a single plop of a disc and a click of a play button, we get transported to a land in which each sugary song gets devoured by all of the assembled ‘tweeny masses that have gathered in the City of Angels to see the Owlies. Adam Young, the 20-something geeky goliath behind Owl City, clearly loves holding the keys to the chocolate factory and is all smiles while delivering his candy-coated concoctions all of which have been baked using one musical recipe: take one batch of simplistic lyrics flavored with overly-enunciated nasally vocals, knead in a repetitive keyboard sample sequence and baste with standard electronica big beats. Initially, it’s a pretty tasty snack but, after a couple of helpings, you start wishing that you had opted for the Whitman’s sampler.

As easy as it is to immediately like Young’s genuine enthusiasm for what he’s doing and his “aww…shucks” emo-impishness when he’s bantering with his audience, the music that results doesn’t show any real tonal variety. It’s all sing-songy la-la-la type of stuff that would work well in a live-action Care Bears movie (trust me…one will happen). He’s also got a long way to go before his lyrics become compelling in any way. They’re always so cheery and peppy, it makes you wonder if the worst day in his life was when a toy failed to make its way into his McDonald’s Happy Meal. And it’s pretty easy to guess that when he introduces a song by saying “here’s one about angels”, the one he’s probably going to launch into is called…you guessed it…”Angels”.

For the one-trick pony that is Owl City, the number of musicians in the band is staggeringly large. In addition to Young, who serves as the group’s guitarist, keyboardist and lead vocalist, there are at least five other people onstage playing a wide array of instruments such as violin, cello and xylophone. At one point, there’s even a second drummer. Why such an arsenal is needed to produce music so banal is unclear as the whole show basically plays as one song in eternal-loop. The only exception to this is when Shawn Chrystopher video-screens in his guest rap during “Alligator Sky”. Even though Chrystopher’s not going to go down in hip-hop history as a flashy grandmaster, the addition of his vocal makes you fully aware of the monotony that you’ve had to endure up to that point.

“Live from Los Angeles” is the first live concert DVD/Blu-ray release from Owl City.  One could guess given their immense popularity that it’ll move truckloads when it is released.  However, it’s possible that very few members of their fan base will actually plunk down the dollars to buy it as many of the frequent audience shots show so many of the gathered Youngins capturing the Owls with their iPhones rather than actually watching the live show. For those that do make the purchase, though, the disc has enough sonic clarity to most likely satisfy any Owlhead audiophiles. And while the Blu-ray’s 1080i presentation does show some artifacting during full-stage shots when the backstage hands have pumped up the smoke machines, close-ups of the band are consistently sharp and clear. Bonus interview segments with Young can be sandwiched in between live tracks or played as one contiguous extended interview.

So, if you’re one who frequents the sparkly Pleasantville that is Owl City, “Live from Los Angeles” will probably be worth the trip. As for me, I prefer to drive through musical landscapes which occasionally have seedy urban boroughs that make me check to see if my doors are locked.

Blu-ray Review “The Richard Thompson Band: Live at Celtic Connections”

Starring: The Richard Thompson Band
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Release Date: January 31, 2012
Run Time: 148 minutes (including extras)

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Richard Thompson’s fourth foray into the live concert home video arena is one that truly shines and serves as a testament to his distinctive guitar-playing virtuosity, astute songwriting talents and dynamic bass-laden vocals. Lauded by critics worldwide, Thompson’s 40-year career includes being a member of the iconic pioneering folk-rock group Fairport Convention, milestone albums recorded while married to wife Linda, and over 12 solo albums in his back catalog. Filmed in January 2011 at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, “Live at Celtic Connections” captures Thompson and his band mates in peak form.

The 2+ hour concert splits itself into two halves.  The first features 11 of the 13 tracks from his most recent CD release, “Dream Attic”. The second half is a romp through his – as the ever self-effacing Thompson states at the show’s beginning – “greatest hits…with a small ‘h’.” The group demonstrates within the first two songs that they can run the gamut between straight-up rockers (“The Money Shuffle”) and hushed somber ballads (“Among the Gorse, Among the Grey”). This alternating upbeat/downbeat pattern persists throughout the “Dream Attic” portion of the show. Very few bands could pull this off but Thompson’s intricate fretwork (which once placed him at #19 in Rolling Stone’s ‘Top 100 Guitarists of All-Time’ list) and his collection of consummate musical companions do it with seamless fluidity. And Thompson’s innate ability to pen lucid and razor-sharp lyrics are consistently balanced by his in-between song stage banter in which his distinctly British sophistication and wit comes to the forefront. He’s a genuinely smart and likeable chap – one you could probably down a few pints with whilst discussing the pentameter of Renaissance-era motets. He’d probably even insist on paying the tab, too.

While “Celtic Connections” thoroughly documents Thompson’s capability as a Fender Strat-wielding electric guitar wizard that can shred a solo in a way that would cause musicians a third of his age to concede defeat, it really fails to showcase his talents as an acoustic guitarist. We only see Thompson playing his Lowden a few times during the entire 20-song performance and they’re essentially numbers in which he’s a backing player. Adding the epic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to the set list would have been most welcome.

Luckily, the two bonus tracks included as the sole extras on the disc, “Uninhabited Man” and “Johnny’s Far Away”, do just that and, as in much of the Celtic Connections concert, demonstrate his ability as a solo acoustic artist to effortlessly move from melancholy to merriment – all within the span of two songs. It’s such a satisfying sampler that it makes one hope that Eagle Vision will add the full 2011 Cambridge Folk Festival concert into their DVD/Blu-ray pipeline.

As one would expect from the 1080i Blu-ray edition of “Celtic Connections”, the picture quality is consistently top-notch and allows us to see all of RT’s string bends and other nimble finger work with startling clarity. The camera work captures all of the band members creating their magic, but the editing of the concert almost exclusively employs sharp cuts from one vantage point to another. This works for the giddier songs but the slower ballads and dirges would have been better served with the occasional dissolve.

Not enough can be said about the sound quality of the Blu-ray. Three options are available to the viewer: DTS-HD surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital stereo. In all cases, the uncompressed audio is superbly mixed and allows RT’s silver strings to resonate with maximum clarity without impeding upon the strength of the low-end bass tracks. This is a demonstration-quality disc and it raises the aural standard for all concert Blu-rays.


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The Sole Inhabitant Returns: An Interview with Thomas Dolby

Quick:  Who is Thomas Dolby?

If you said “The ‘She Blinded Me with Science’ dude”, you’re probably in a vast majority.   But, as Dolby’s long-time fans know, he’s far more than just being the artist responsible for the irresistibly catchy song that propelled him to the top of the charts and made him a staple of MTV’s golden era.   In addition to a being technological pioneer both inside and outside of the recording studio, Thomas’ musical career boasts a body of innovative work that includes five albums, the most recent of which – “A Map of the Floating City” – is his first since 1992.  It’s a triumphant return and one that hopefully marks the beginning of an equally prolific stage for him as a singer, songwriter and performer.

In talking with Thomas, he touched upon the things that drove him to create new music, reflected back on experiences from early on in his career, and how he’s seen the music industry and new talent evolve into the modern era.  We even had a chance to Cher our views on a certain vocal effect.

Dave Picton:  “The Map of the Floating City” is your first new album of studio material in 20 years. What made you want to return to creating and releasing new music after all of that time?
Thomas Dolby:  I suppose I just had some new songs that I wanted to get out.  You know, they say often with an artist’s first album, that you’ve had 20 years of life experience to draw from and, with your second album, you’ve had six months of airport lounges and hotel bars. [laughs] I felt that I’d had another 20 years of life experience to draw from.  I had a lot of good ideas and things that I wanted to express.

DP:  “Map” certainly wound up being quite autobiographical in nature.   What influenced that approach?
TD:  Well, I think the biggest influence on me, really, is my environment.  I think especially that moving and becoming displaced and that feeling of dislocation is a strong sort of catalyst of new songs for me.  So that sort of explains the map and the three continents reflecting three places that I’ve lived.  There’s “Urbanoia” and it clearly shows that I’m not a city person.  In “Amerikana”, the aggregate of me living in the States was a really good one.  I’m drawn to indigenous American music because we don’t really have indigenous music here in the UK.  That may sound strange to say, but I tend to charitably think of us being very original and innovative and so on, but in fact what we’re really good at is sort of plundering musical styles from elsewhere in the world and putting a cool sort of wrap on them and re-exploiting them.  A sort of musical imperialism, you know?  [laughs]  So, with the “Amerikana” section, it was sort of a nod in the direction of roots and old-time American music but with a unique sort of British tint to it.  And then “Oceanea” was really about coming home to England and feeling very comfortable in the environment here.  I live in a tiny village on the coast where my mum’s side of the family is from.  She never had the chance to meet my family.  She would have been very proud to see them back here growing up and learning to love it the way she did.

DP:  Jumping back to the notion of combining musical styles and using them in your music, what things were you listening to at the beginning that made you want to go into music and stuff you continue to listen to throughout your career?
TD:  Fairly diverse and eclectic music. I was always more into individuals with a unique voice and rock and roll band music.

DP:  Any one in particular?
TD:   When I was a teenager, David Bowie was a big influence.  Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were big influences.  These are all wide varieties of different styles of music but what they all have in common is a unique lyrical voice.  The music that they made with the arrangements they created and the production and so on all served to tell a story.  They all wrote songs that you could have sat down and sung on the piano and they still would have made sense.

DP:  Is there a favorite genre that you like to settle into and work with or are all of them pretty comfortable and enjoyable to work with?
TD:  Well, what I enjoy most is working with a genre that I’m not too familiar with because it’s an exploration.  I tend to steer clear of styles that I’m too fluent in because there’s less randomness to it.  It’s more predictable.  So I find it stimulating to work in a new style.

DP:  If I snagged your iPod and pressed “random”, what artists would I hear?  Would you be one of them?
TD:  Well, inevitably, there’s a few of mine on there because I need to take them with me to listen to all sorts of rough mixes and things like that.  But, besides that, you would hear Iggy Pop.  Bjork.  Dan Hicks. T-Rex.  Marvin Gaye.  Trentemøller.  Athlete.  Venus Hum.  BT.  And some of the others I mentioned earlier.

DP:  You embraced technology from the very beginning of your career.  A great many things have happened in that realm since your first album, “The Golden Age of Wireless”.  Has evolving technology changed the way you approach writing music and what do you think the effect of it has been on music in general?
TD:  I think that the main difference is that D.I.Y. music has become possible.  You couldn’t do anything yourself in 1980.  You needed somebody to fund you to go into a studio, which is very expensive and is the only place to make a high-quality recording.  You also needed somebody with distribution power or else the public would never get to hear what you made.  So there was sort of this obstacle course that you needed to get through before you ever got in front of an audience.   Many people that were very talented didn’t make it through those hurdles.  Today, there’s absolutely nothing to stop you getting out in front of the audience without any outside help at all.  For a few hundred bucks, you can have a recording studio on your laptop and services that, without any investment up front, will help you distribute your music.  This is great news for talented youngsters because all talented youngsters believe “Well, as soon as the world hears me, they’re going to fall in love with me and I’ll be a mega-star!”  But, back in my day, we were actually kidding ourselves.  We first needed the industry to fall in love with us.  That has very wide implications.  The first is that it’s a very healthy thing for the music itself because, back then, if you sat down to write a song, you were worried whether or not you can get a cassette to the A&R man or, even if you weren’t really signed, would the marketing department and the promotion guys really go for it? Is radio going to play it?  Is retail going to stock it?  You were concerned about all of those things and they preyed on your mind when you wrote a song. Or at least they did on mine.

DP:   Was this phenomenon one that was relevant to you in the period between “Golden Age” and your second album, “The Flat Earth”?
TD:  I think it was relevant to me to an extent because there was a lot of pressure on me to repeat the formula that had made “She Blinded Me with Science” successful.  In industry terms, the textbook thing to have done would have been to have trotted out another half-dozen quirky synth-pop hits with gimmicky videos and those people would have told me “Then, Thomas…you can gradually turn people around to your more personal intimate music.”  [laughs]  But I’m impatient.  I had a lot more depth in me and I wanted to jump right on to the more important stuff.  This didn’t sit too well with the industry.  There was friction there and it was ultimately disappointing, really, that the industry couldn’t get behind my more personal material especially when it turned out that, over the years, when the internet emerged and so on, you could get more feedback from the fans other than just record sales.  You could actually hear what they thought of one song or another and what they appreciated about your music and how they found out about it and so on.  Suddenly the internet enabled the audience to feed back to the creator and it turned out that – big surprise – songs that they were really into were not “She Blinded Me with Science” or “Hyperactive!”.  The songs that they were into were “Screen Kiss” and “Budapest by Blimp” and “I Love You, Goodbye” which are my favorite songs as well.  It was hard for me during the 80’s to persuade my record label that they should put some weight behind those and I partly have myself to blame for that because they’d seen me make a lot of money with “She Blinded Me with Science” and they felt “Well, why can’t you just do that?”

DP:  Was the inclusion of “Hyperactive!” on “Flat Earth” sort of fulfilling of that end of the bargain to an extent?  It certainly seemed to be a song that was out of place with the rest of the songs on that album.
TD:  You know, I don’t want to give you the impression that I despise the poppy side to what I do.  I mean, I like the spectrum of things that I do.  Even on the new album, something like “Toad Lickers” which is clearly a little bit tongue-in-cheek and a little ironic, is lot more frivolous than the more meaty material on the album.  So I do enjoy it.  There’s a side of my nature that wants to do those kinds of things as well as the other ones.  But I guess with a song like that there is a distraction.  It’s impossible for someone with a record label mentality or a radio mentality to see the wood for the trees, really.  You know, I’d go into my company’s office at the time of the “Flat Earth” album and they’d say “Oh, Thomas! You wouldn’t believe it!  All of the secretaries here are in love with ‘Screen Kiss’ and they’re all humming it and playing it and saying what a beautiful song it is!” and I’m going “Great!  Are we going to go with it as a single?”  “No…we’re looking for something more like ‘Hyperactive!’ or ‘She Blinded Me with Science’.”  So the good news is that these days you don’t have to be accountable like that to anybody else other than your audience.  As an example, the first song off of the new album that we promoted at all was “Oceanea” and there’s no beat to it.  It’s kind of radio catastrophe. [laughs]  But, at the same time, I’d seen the reaction of my audience to that song that it had the deepest affect on people.   And I thought “Well, you put your best foot forward”, you know? That’s what you go with.

DP:  For “Map of the Floating City”, did you put out a couple of songs, get the fan feedback and then say to yourself “Oh, I was going to go in this direction but this is an interesting idea, I think I’ll go in a different direction” or were the songs already in the can?  And to what extent does the interaction with your audience play into when you’re starting to write and compose songs?
TD:  I wouldn’t say that it affects me directly.  I think that I do it for a couple of reasons partly because I like the moral support that I get, both from the audience and the making of the music as well.  I feel that, rather than working in a void, there’s an active audience out there that’s ever eager to get a hold of my new material.  I tend to work on my own and just bring in other musicians for specific tasks so it’s not like there’s a core group of us that sit down every day to press on with the album.  So I miss that camaraderie but what I gain by having a tight loop with the audience is that I can sneak stuff out in a fairly stealthy way and get feedback from it.  Invariably they’re pleased with what I do, but every now and then something doesn’t get as good of a reaction as I had hoped and it sort of makes me go “Hmm…I wonder what they’re not seeing in this.”  So I think it definitely influences me but it doesn’t radically change the choices that I make in terms of the songs themselves and the way that they’re arranged and presented.  I’ll give you an example: on the original demo for the song “Oceanea”, I used a processing effect on the voice in the first verse which involved heavily compressing and filtering the vocal and keening certain syllables.  It’s kind of what AutoTune does in an automated way but I was sort of doing it manually. I did it that way specifically as an experiment because I thought that it gave it a certain vulnerability.  Because of that, I got some backlash from people that said “Eeewww…I hate AutoTune!  I’ve hated it ever since Cher!”

DP:  Well, I hate to say it Thomas, but I was one of those people.  I wrote a review of “Map of the Floating City” that you wound up commenting on specifically in regards to that track and AutoTune.
TD:  Oh, OK.  Well it doesn’t bother me that people have those reactions.  As you noticed, despite that, I didn’t change it.  I stuck to my guns on it and I’m still glad that I did.  I perform the song live now and I miss that effect, not just because I can’t sing it in tune [laughs] but because it has a certain innocence about it.  Unfortunately, it pushed the wrong buttons for some people because they have a built-in prejudice about AutoTune and the flavor that brings to music and, in my case, it was a very deliberate thing.

DP:  One of the things I pointed out in our online dialog was that, to me anyways, there seems to be a difference between the song “Oceanea” as released on the EP and then what followed on the “Map of the Floating City” album.  I listened to the two versions quite a few times and it certainly seemed to me that on the EP version, the effect fades out after the first verse and, after that, it’s pretty much devoid of any vocal effect whereas the version that appears on “Map” has it throughout.
TD:  Well, since that discussion with you, I haven’t gone back and listened to both but, to the best of my memory, it’s the exact same vocal in the first verse on the EP and on the album.  I don’t remember changing or altering it further.  It could be that the rest of the mix around it changes your perception of it, but I believe it’s basically the same vocal.

DP:  Over the course of your career, you’ve done a fair amount of work on film soundtracks such as “Gothic”, “Howard the Duck” and “The Gate to the Mind’s Eye”.  Is that something you could foresee doing more of in the future?
TD:  I would consider doing it in the future.  I had mixed results with it.  “Gothic” is slightly in the news at the moment because of Ken Russell dying the other day and because people are looking retrospectively at his work.  It turns out that “Gothic” was quite a popular one and a lot of people single out my score as being something unique about that film. I really enjoyed working one-on-one with him.  In the other cases, it was more of a committee decision, you know, and it’s a bit disappointing that as a composer on a movie, you’re kind of relatively genial on the totem pole.  You’re sort of down there with the lighting guys and things like that, so if something is required to change for the sake of the movie, there’s no question that the composer has to sort of swallow it.  This was quite hard for me because I put a lot of love in everything that I do and nothing I do is throw-away.  So if, for example, a scene is cut, and I lose a piece of music that took me days to come up with and it’s not going to get used in the movie and yet the studio owns the copyright and therefore I can’t use it anywhere else, that’s a bit disappointing.  But you’re expected to just sort of expect that because you’re part of a larger team.  So I think that the right situation for somebody like me in film is when you get to work with one of the few actual auteurs that are out there.  I think a good example is Danny Elfman and his work with Tim Burton where very early on they established a relationship and Tim Burton became valued for his the individuality of his films and the fact that he has a single-minded vision that Danny’s music definitely was a major component in.   He’s done great great work but I wish we all could have as cushy a ride on a movie.

DP:  You recently remastered and reissued “The Golden Age of Wireless” and “The Flat Earth” as expanded editions that really fleshed out those two works for those who had heard them when they were initially released and serve as a great introduction for those who only know “Science”.  Are any other items in your backcatalog slated to get a similar treatment?
TD:  Well, not really.  There’s not a lot of wastage in what I do so there’s very few outtakes and demos and things like that.  I’ve got something that I’m interested in reworking which is when I put together my band, the Lost Toy People, in ’87-ish we went out on tour before we ever went into the studio to make the “Aliens Ate My Buick” album.  We did some sort of basement tapes which were straight to two-track tape.  We were pretty hot at the time because we had been touring, so the songs had a certain rawness about them that I thought was really interesting.  I also have quite a lot of video footage of us on that tour.  I’m quite tempted to remaster those tapes and piece it together – although it would be a bit of a cheat to use visuals from the tour and those tapes – and create a lost LTP basement tape type of recording.

DP:  Throughout your career, you’ve been able to have a wide variety of high-profile musicians including the likes of Mark Knopfler, Jerry Garcia and Eddie Van Halen as session musicians on your albums.  Is there any one of them that you’ve most enjoyed working with?  And are there any out there that you’d like to work with at some point in the future?
TD:   Well, I love working with other musicians.  It’s interesting that very often with guitar, which is not my instrument, I’ll have a song and think of a certain guitarist and imagine how they’d fit right in.  Interestingly with both Jerry Garcia and Eddie Van Halen, when I first started working with them, they picked up their guitars and tried to sound like Thomas Dolby which is not what I wanted at all. [laughs]  I just wanted them to be themselves so I could see the way they could fit in with what I was doing.  I’d say the exception to that rule amongst the guitar heroes that I’ve worked with was Mark Knopfler who actually listened to the song very hard from start to finish and then picked up a guitar and played me take after take all of which were just gorgeous.  He just said “As long as you want to keep winding the tape back, I’m happy to give you another one.”  So I winded up with like 15 or 16 different takes and it was very hard to choose between them because each one was unique and different.  He never played the same thing twice and all of it seemed like a really good expression of the feeling of the song.

DP:  When you work with other musicians, do you bring them in and actually work with them in person or are they working remote with the raw mix that you’ve provided them with and they, in turn, send their track over to you?
TD:  With the three that we’ve discussed, I worked with them in person but for quite a few of the guests on the new album, I wasn’t there.  Imogen Heap just recorded some jaw harp for me and sent me over a sample.  Regina Spektor I met once only when she did the TED conference a couple of years ago.  I just sent her the tapes and suggestions for her lines in English and she translated them into Russian and just sent me back some recordings.  Ditto with Natalie MacMaster, the Cape Breton fiddle player that plays on the album.  Uh, with Ethel and with my horn section, I went and recorded them in person because there’s a lot of arranging that had to get done on the fly.

DP:  Now that “Map of the Floating City” has been released, are you planning on any sort of live tour to support it?
TD:  Yeah, we’re trying to put a tour together for the spring.  Sort including South by Southwest and Cochella.  Where are you?

DP:  I’m on the east coast, Connecticut specifically.
TD:  Right.  I think we’ll be coming through something like the end of March.

DP:  I saw you a few years back at BB King’s Blues Club in New York City when you played there and it was a great show.
TD:  Oh yes, I enjoyed that.  Was that with a horn section or just me?

DP:  Just you. Will the new tour be a solo one as well?
TD:  I’ll have a small band with me.  As soon as things are firmed up, I’ll be posting the tour information on my website.  I look forward to seeing you there.

DP:  And I certainly look forward to being there.  It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Thomas.
TD:  Thanks.  Same here.   See you soon, my friend.

  For more information about Thomas Dolby and upcoming tour information,

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CD Review: Candice Night “Reflections”

Candice Night
Minstrel Hall Music
10 Tracks
Length: 39 minutes

Our Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Candice Night’s “Reflections” – her first solo effort since becoming the lead songstress of the folky-renaissance music juggernaut, Blackmore’s Night, 15 years ago – is one that falls short of establishing her as a viable solo artist.  While she does attempt to break the mold of the olde-school 16th-century style music that she and husband, former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, have made unique and refreshing, the vast majority of the songs on the disc stay firmly planted in the landscape of quiet lovelorn ballads that Blackmore’s Night fans have heard many times before.

As has often been the case with many of the releases in the Blackmore’s Night back catalog, “Reflections” opens with the album’s strongest track, “Wind is Calling (Hush the Wind)”.  The song ethereally seeps in with Night chanting a wispy mantra refrain and, with a flourish, her often double-tracked vocal jumps into the foreground – a place where it will stay throughout the entire album.  While the song doesn’t signal a radical shift from her usual style, it’s good enough to provide a strong foundation and raises expectations that the entire outing will at least be an interesting one – and perhaps even a good one.

After the lead-off cut, Candice suddenly shifts gears and throws a rousing country-style romp into the mix in the form of “Gone Gone Gone”.  While it’s a fun tune and her voice fits fairly well within the genre, it’s far too derivative of the myriad of attitudinal down-home country hits that have become staple songs at karaoke haunts.  Night needs to infuse the song with the type of storytelling spunk that make songs like Carrie Underwood’s “Last Name” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” catchy and memorable, but her lyrics probably could at least use a couple of tall cans of Coors as a main ingredient.

“Dangerous Smile” makes “Gone Gone Gone” seem like a gem.  As much as Night can pass as a poor woman’s Shania Twain, “Smile” clearly proves that she should leave Gaga such as this to the Lady herself. With fuzz power chords and the occasional electronic drum mega-fill, it quickly moves from being a confusing anomaly to a sheer annoyance.  It’s simply silly and so unnatural that it makes one wonder if she’s been pulled away from suckling the Renaissance teat completely against her will.

The remaining eight tracks are what we’d expect: a collection of haunting Stevie Nicks-ish ballads that all too often have lost and unrequited love as their theme.  At best, they play as decent demos that could be fleshed out for possible inclusion on a future Blackmore’s Night album.  But her insistence upon this style the quickly becomes repetitive and fatigue-inducing.  Indeed, it’s enough to make “Reflections”’ brief 39-minute running time seem insufferably longer – so much so that, by the time the album’s violin-centric coda is reached, it’s something of a relief that Night’s solo journey has finally concluded.

The disc’s production – helmed by Blackmore’s Night producer Pat Regan – is consistently top-notch. Night’s vocal powers have clearly strengthened in the 15 years since “Shadow of the Moon” was released and Regan keeps her voice front-and-center throughout “Reflections”.  As far as the backing music is concerned, the only musician credited in the album’s liner notes is violinist Elizabeth Cary.  It’s a mystery as to what other players were on board with the project, but it seems that none of the talented Blackmore’s Night band o’ merry men were involved.  And it’s clear that Ritchie is nowhere to be found as he most definitely would have added a much-needed guitar solo to the train wreck that is “Dangerous Smile.”

If there’s anything that “Reflections” proves, it’s that, while Candice Night has strong enough pipes to hold her own vocally, she desperately needs augmentation in the form of a powerhouse backing band like the poofy shirt and tights-clad minstrels of Blackmore’s Night.  Without them, she’s something of a damsel in distress.

Track Listing:
1. Wind Is Calling (Hush The Wind)
2. Gone Gone Gone
3. Black Roses
4. Now And Then (2011)
5. Dangerous Smile
6. For You
7. Call It Love
8. Robin Red Breast
9. Alone With Fate
10. In Time

Film Review “Carnage”

Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Walz
Director: Roman Polanski
Running Time: 1 hr 19 min
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Billed as a “new comedy with no manners”, Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” casts four Hollywood stars with incredible clout – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Walz – and lets them go at it with all of the unbridled fury that they can muster. And over the course of a brief yet potent 80 minutes it’s a joy to see each of them contribute to the wild chaos that unfolds.

Based upon Yasmina Reza’s wildly successful play, “God of Carnage”, the premise of the film is a fairly simple one: two sets of parents meet up in a rather small apartment in New York City to discuss a playground altercation between their two sons.  Tension is evident from the onset and eventually forced civility and proper manners transform into sharp-tongued rage and physical outbursts that result in decimated coffee table books, smashed tulips and a drowned cell phone.  But the overall effect of their verbal carnage runs far deeper than destruction of each character’s prized possessions.  The venom that each spits at the other, be it through sarcasm or interrogation, strikes at each other’s core beings and true beliefs.  Despite this inherently vicious drama, the film manages to play as a dark comedy because – let’s face it – it’s a guilty pleasure to vicariously watch adults devolve into the sandbox bullies that are just as vicious as the children that they are ostensibly there to protect.

The quick and edgy rhythmic dialog by which the film achieves this is nearly identical to Reza’s script for her stage play – which is not altogether surprising given that she and Polanski collaborated on the screenplay.  And because the film takes place almost entirely in the living room of Foster and Reilly’s apartment, the confined space increases the pressure of the volatility of the situation through sheer claustrophobia.  While this largely works throughout the majority of the film as each character builds up to detonation, it somewhat neuters the explosions that a more spacious set would have allowed for.  As such, Winslet’s final act of floral cruelty plays as more of an anti-climatic coda than a dynamic tantrum and the film ends abruptly and somewhat flat.

As one would expect from such an all-star dream team, the performances are consistently excellent both individually and as a collective.  Foster plays the role of the humanitarian Penelope with a more even-keel than Marcia Gay Harden did in the Broadway production (one for which Harden won a Tony Award) but it works well within the ensemble.  Reilly once again demonstrates his amazing comedic ability as Michael, the everyman father that, while simplistic in his ways, often delivers some of the film’s most brutal observations.  It’s a true testimony to his versatility as an actor that he can pull off both modes seamlessly and believably.  Winslet’s ever-expressive face serves her well in the role of the refined yet unsatisfied Nancy.  With a twitch of her dark eyebrows, we know exactly which gear she’s shifted into.  But as Alan, the conniving and cell phone-encumbered lawyer, it’s Walz who serves as the film’s catalyst by stirring the entire volatile group while maintaining a quiet – albeit sharply sarcastic – composure. The vicious subtlety that won him an Oscar for his portrayal of Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” is gloriously on display here and could easily earn him another nod from the Academy and quite possibly another gold statuette.   When he states in deliberately soft yet biting tones “I believe in the god of carnage who has ruled the world uninterruptedly since the dawn of time” we’ve come to sense the presence of that chaotic deity and are all the better for watching his disciples exorcize their demons.

King of the ‘Rÿche: An Interview with Queensrÿche’s Geoff Tate

While standing outside of the Orlando House of Blues’ green room waiting to interview Geoff Tate of Queensrÿche, three musical things can be discerned: the sound check of the opening band, Geoff doing some pre-concert vocal warm-ups and – very faintly – the calming strains of classical music.   It’s an interesting mix of stimuli to be sure.  When Geoff completes his exercises, he’s ready to talk – which is amazing given that Queensrÿche’s sound check went for an hour more than scheduled and that the band has less than two hours before they have to take the stage and deliver the goods to a packed house.

Tate’s look has changed many times over the course of the 30 years he’s been with the band.  Gone is the coiffed long black hair that appeared in the videos for “Silent Lucidity” and “Jet City Woman” from the band’s hugely successful 1990 release, “Empire”.  These days, Geoff is sporting a bald head and a pencil-thin goatee that cause me to immediately conjure up mental images of Ming the Merciless and Anton LaVey.  But Tate’s demeanor is far from threatening and certainly not in any way demonic.  For a singer known for his ability to carry high-pitched metal wailings, his deep voice is one that is surprisingly soft-spoken.

The green room’s two plush couches upon which he and I sit are rather relaxing – as is the Debussy that continues to softly play from his iPod’s dock’s speakers, something that will remain a constant throughout our conversation.

Well…at least for half of it.

Dave Picton:  So you’re on your 30th anniversary tour.
Geoff Tate:  Yeah.  The end of it.  There’s the show tonight and then we have two shows on the boat and a show in Clearwater. Today is kind of a hectic day because we’re getting ready to go on a ShipRocked Cruise.  Certain equipment goes and certain things stay, you know?  We’re playing “Mindcrime” on the boat, so we’re rehearsing it now because we haven’t played the whole thing in quite a few years.

DP: The band has largely been the same group of guys that you’ve been working with since 1981.
GT:  Yeah.  Four out of five.

DP:  As you look back are there good memories?  Not so good memories?
GT:  Oh yeah, there’s both. Lots of both.

DP:  After a bunch of concept albums that you released within the past decade or so, such as “Operation: Mindcrime II” and “American Soldier”,  the latest new album, “Dedicated to Chaos”, finds the band going for straight-forward singles-oriented songs that often have new technology as a central theme.  What’s your take on technology?
GT:  Oh, it’s fascinating.  Very fun.  It can definitely be something that sidetracks you from a lot of things and definitely takes your attention away from a lot of other things while you’re figuring out the latest gadget.  A lot of really good things like studio stuff and recording equipment and all that has gotten really modular and now you can take it anywhere you want and record in rooms like this and airplanes.  We do a lot of work all on computers now   It’s great.  You can really sketch out an idea.  It helps in the studio in terms of composing and coming up with new stuff and making demos.

DP:  When you record demos now, how far are you going with the song?  I know that it used to be that it would be fairly crude like when Buck Dharma of Blue Öyster Cult recorded the “Don’t Fear the Reaper” demo, he was playing drums on cardboard boxes. Now you can have a demo be pretty close to what the final cut is going to sound like.
GT:  Well, sound-wise, you can get really close.  But working with the other guys in the studio is a whole different thing.  Personally, in my opinion, songs turn out better when everybody’s playing together.  There’s a kind of synergy that happens with the musicians and you take an idea a lot further along when you get other people involved.  You can take it on your own and get good sounds but you don’t get the really cool performances and the particular thing that they do.

DP:  “Operation: Mindcrime” has very much become heavy metal’s “Dark Side of the Moon” in terms of how timeless it truly is.  As of late, it’s also become very timely with events that are going on right now.  For example, there are a bunch of videos on YouTube of “Mindcrime” songs that feature photo montages of Occupy Wall Street.  What’s your take on the relevance of those lyrics to this cause?
GT:  Well, the movement is really interesting. Over the last couple of months, every city we’ve gone to, there have been protestors everywhere.  Thousands of them, not just a handful, you know?  The news likes to say that there are a lot of angry people out there – and rightly so.  It’s getting pretty tough to make a living these days in this country.  It’s a massive complex issue and there’s no simple answer to it. But it’s kind of what’s happened because our country is built on business and commerce.  That’s our culture, really.  And those things mean competition which wastes the other guy to get ahead.  If somebody can make more money selling jobs to overseas workers, they’re gonna do it if there’s no law that says they can’t. So that’s what’s happened.  We’ve sold all of our jobs and our manufacturing to other places and what have we got now?  We have a nation full of people that are trained for the service industry which is great but now that people aren’t spending money to go out and eat dinner what are you gonna do then?  Every action has a reaction to it. People think it’s fine to download music.  Well, downloading music has gutted an industry.  Where 10 years ago there were 50,000 or 100,000 people employed by the record industry, now there’s 3,000.  The industry is failing and the money is gone because somebody thought it was OK to steal the product.  You can’t fight that now that we’ve raised a generation of people who don’t see anything wrong with it.  In fact, I think they just passed a law that says file sharing is legal now.  Great.  Thanks.  Now you can steal my work.  Where does that end? It all affects everyone else, you know? So all of those people that are out of work in the industry now don’t have a job where they can go and pay to get their car fixed, so the mechanic is short on work now.  And because he’s short on work, he can’t buy the groceries he normally would buy at the grocery store so now the grocery store is hurting.  It all affects everything.

DP:  A domino effect happens.
GT:  Exactly.  It’s a massive massive problem that nobody has an answer for.  It’s something we really have to look at and study and maybe change the way we think and the way we do things.

DP:  I think fundamentally that’s one of the core things on which the movement is based.
GT:  Yeah. I think that’s probably at the core of what a lot of the protestors are talking about – at least the ones I’ve talked to.  There’s a lot of people who don’t know what they’re protesting against so they don’t know how to define it or verbalize it but there’s a LOT of people that do.  It’s an interesting movement.  There’s a lot of anger and frustration that it’s based around and when people get angry and frustrated, violence happens.  So we could be on the brink of something pretty major here over the next few months I would guess.

DP:  It seems to be growing.
GT:  It is. We’ll see where it goes.

DP:  Anyways, back to some music questions.  If I snagged your iPod and I hit random, what would I hear?
GT:  Well let’s look. [reaches over to turn off  his iPod and remove it from its stereo speaker dock]  We were just listening to Debussy.  Artists or albums?

DP:  Let’s go with artists.
GT:  I’ll start at the top. [calls up his artist playlist]

DP:  Wow. All over the map.  America. Aerosmith. Beck. Benny Goodman. Black Sabbath. Brian Setzer. Frank Sinatra. Candy Dulfer.  Awesome saxophone player!  There’s actually quite a lot of saxophone on the new Queensrÿche album.
GT: Actually, there’s been saxophone on every album since..uh… “Promised Land” I believe.  Anyway, as you can see, there’s a lot of variance here on my iPod. [laughs]  Do you know of Erykah Badu?

DP:  I do.  I love her song “Next Lifetime”.
GT: She’s one of my favorites.  And we’re just halfway through the list! I’ve got a lot of stuff.

DP:  You’re not kidding! John Lennon & Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. Miles Davis.  Diana Krall. I’ve noticed there’s quite a lot of jazz.
GT:  There’s a lot of jazz on it.  A majority of the stuff on here is old jazz.

DP:  But certainly not exclusively.  Neil Young.  Moody Blues.  Loreena McKennit.  I’ve seen her live.  Absolutely amazing show.  Pink Floyd.  Sade.  Yes.  I just interviewed Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman a month or so ago. Man…the list goes on and on.  And – but of course – Queensrÿche.  In the near future, what might I see on your Pod in terms of those guys?
GT:  [laughs]  I don’t  know.  We don’t really have a plan right now.  Honestly, this has been a really long tour and everybody’s just kind of burnt out right now.  It’s probably just time to get home and chill and recharge the batteries.  And then we’ll start talking in a couple of months about “Oh, do you wanna do something?” and we’ll see what happens.

Concert Review: Queensryche “30th Anniversary” Tour – Orlando, FL

“30th Anniversary” Tour
House of Blues, Orlando, FL
November 12, 2011

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Over the course of their career since forming in 1981, Queensryche have gone from playing large arenas to support huge-selling albums like “Operation: Mindcrime”, “Empire” and “Promised Land” to playing smaller theatres and clubs to promote a roster of spotty and occasionally downright awful releases since the departure of lyricist and guitarist Chris DeGarmo in 1997. Since then, the band has tried various means to attract crowds including a tour in which the set lists were mostly comprised of covers (to support the “Take Cover” album), a massive theatrical stage show that resembled a Broadway musical (the “Operation: Mindcrime II” tour) and even an adults-only cabaret tour that featured go-go dancers, contortionists, drag queens and a dominatrix.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Life is like a Queensryche concert.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”

So, it was with great trepidation that I walked through the doors of the Orlando stop of their “30th Anniversary” tour – one that, in theory, was also embarked upon to support their most recent studio album “Dedicated to Chaos”. Given that “Chaos” is one of their weakest efforts to date, I very much hoped that the show would be retrospective in nature and cover a variety of their finest songs from the past three decades rather than one that would be dominated by the latest misfire. So, as the houselights dimmed, I crossed my fingers and prayed for the best.

From the now darkened room, two video walls on either side of the stage sprang to life and, underscored by a digitized sea of flames, the covers of every studio album the band had released materialized and faded, the hit albums receiving huge amounts of applause; the misses…well…not so much. After the appearance and disappearance of the “Chaos” cover art, Queensryche blasted into action with the appropriately titled “Get Started”, the opening track from that album. While the song caused me to speculate that the concert might indeed be dominated by the new release, “Started” played quite well live and lead vocalist Geoff Tate immediately established a dominating larger-than-life animated stage presence that would keep the audience in his clutches throughout the entire show. But would it remain “Chaotic”?

Luckily, it didn’t.

Only one other song from “Chaos” was played (“At the Edge”) during which Geoff Tate donned a saxophone and added his own instrumentation to mixed results. The rest of the 19-song set featured the classic songs that fans of the band regard as their greatest – and ones that could easily convert newcomers to do the ‘Ryche thing from there on in.

The show was probably the tightest that I’ve seen the band play since the “Hear in the Now Frontier” tour in 1997, the last that DeGarmo would participate in. Tate’s voice is still in peak form and the core rhythm section since the group’s inception, bassist Eddie Jackson and powerhouse drummer Scott Rockenfield, remains one of the best in the heavy metal genre. Guitarist Michael Wilton has also been a constant, but the post-DeGarmo years have seen him trade licks with three other axemen. The most current, Parker Lundgren, is undeniably the best of the batch and the synergy between the two guitarists rivals that of the band’s banner years.

Because of this, this iteration of the group was able to infuse new life into their staple songs. As could be expected, tracks from “Operation: Mindcrime” and the hugely successful “Empire” dominated the set list. Their 9 other studio albums were represented as well and included classics from early in the band’s career such as “NM 156”, “Screaming in Digital” and even “The Lady Wore Black” and “Queen of the Ryche” from their 1982 self-titled debut EP. The band truly seemed to enjoy this trip down memory lane and their assembled legion of followers reacted with huge enthusiasm as the group dished out mutual favorites.

One can only hope that Queensryche can maintain the level of lucidity and intensity they so readily exhibited at the House of Blues. At their peak, the band brought a level of sophistication and intelligence to heavy metal that hadn’t been seen before and, in so doing, raised the bar so high for the genre that the group itself frequently couldn’t clear it. As Queensryche enters into their fourth decade, the future could be a very bright one for them – as long as they continue to remember how it started.

CD Review: The Jeff Healey Band “Full Circle: The Live Anthology”

The Jeff Healey Band
“Full Circle: The Live Anthology” (4-disc box set)
Studio: Eagle Records
Number of discs: 4 (3 CDs + 1 DVD)
DVD Run Time: 64 minutes

Our Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Jeff Healey Band’s “Full Circle: The Live Anthology” box set is a most-welcome breath of fresh air from the holiday-spawned scheme in which record companies drudge up every goody that an artist has ever recorded and repackages it in hopes that completists will then part with their cash and repurchase a mass of material, most of which they already own.

The folks at Eagle Records skip the usual array of greatest hits, previously unreleased studio cuts, dusted-off-from-the-vaults demos and special remixes that are typical of this type of scam and, instead, serve up three CDs worth of live concert performances: one from 1989’s Montreal Jazz Festival, another from the Switzerland-based St. Gallen Open Air Festival in 1991, as well a Toronto show from 1995. A DVD of the 1991 show rounds out the package. It’s a ballsy maneuver and winds up turning what could have been a posthumous insult to into a tribute that truly befits Healey and is so richly deserved.

The set lists from each of the three shows documented by “Full Circle” often include the same songs and, as such, provide anchor points by which the listener can specifically hear Healey and his band grow from a raw three-piece outfit that, while still immensely talented, could be somewhat ragged and repetitive in its instrumentation into a finely-tuned machine that was a force to be reckoned with. The performances showcase the band ripping through their own material (including the sentimental mega-hit “Angel Eyes”) as well as an assortment of revved-up covers that includes the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”, the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”. At the core of each and every song is Healey’s virtuoso blues guitar work and a bare-bones rhythm section that augments him perfectly. Envision ZZ Top or Neil Young’s Crazy Horse being fronted by Stevie Ray Vaughn and you’re pretty much there – save for one thing.

Only the DVD of the 1991 show allows the viewer/listener to discover the fact that Healey was entirely blind. Although often seated with his double-necked guitar positioned pedal-steel style in his lap and fretting in a way that more resembles piano playing, the video also captures him playing his axe behind his head, with his teeth and even with his feet. These flashy displays would seem indulgent and cliché if the musician presented throughout the 4 discs seemed arrogant and out to impress in a sideshow circus performer kind of way, but that’s far from the case. Healey’s frequent down-to-earth stage banter and ever-present true love of the blues consistently allows the music to outshine the man himself.

The only item that has been overlooked by the creators of the box set is the inclusion of any sort of write-up that explains why these three particular shows were chosen or any sort of biographical information about Healey. Liner notes from any of his contemporaries sharing their insights as to what made him such a consummate and gifted artist would almost seem to be a mandatory component as well. However, the only item included is a 4-page booklet that’s solely comprised of the track lists from each of the discs and restoration credits for the video footage contained on the DVD. Given that this text is already printed on the back of the standard-issue DVD case insert, it’s redundant and unnecessary – and a massive lost opportunity.

Regardless of this oversight, “Full Circle” is a well-envisioned package that, instead of being superfluous, becomes a necessary historical document. Fine musicianship rarely shines as bright as Healey’s and this set allows us to see a light that was extinguished far too early.