Thursday, May 23, 2013

Memories In Highland Park

Recently I worked as a production assistant on a film, and one day we were on location on York Blvd. in Highland Park, just two blocks away from where I spent some of the best nights of my life. I can’t believe it’s been nearly a decade since The Peak Show broke up. Time moves much too quickly.

The Peak Show was one of the greatest bands in the entire history of music, and they put on the best house concerts in a loft on York Blvd. (which we all affectionately called The Peak Show Compound). At certain points, these were weekly events. The Peak Show would play, and they’d have some amazing bands open for them (and sometimes play after them) – folks like Los Abandoned, Go Betty Go, Mother Tongue, Tre Hardson, Paul Chesne and Blood Sugar. And then after that, there was often a DJ. These parties went on late into the night.

These shows were not really advertised. There were no tickets or anything (just give five or so dollars at the door). But word got round, and at one point LA Weekly listed their party as the recommended pick of the week. That was insane. It was also the beginning of the end. Way too many people showed up. And some of them, well, weren’t the right kind of people. You know? Somehow during the course of that night, the toilet was broken. I don’t mean it overflowed, or the flusher stopped working. I mean someone broke the toilet. I’m not even sure how one would go about doing that. But someone did. That was basically the end of the Peak Show parties (not just because of the toilet, of course).

They did one more party after the band made the decision to break up. The band’s final performance (in October of 2004) was a party at the compound. And it was a truly incredible night of music. They did a few songs they’d never done before. (I was also lucky enough to attend the band’s final rehearsal, where they worked on a song called “Joyful Process,” which they ended up not playing at the show.) And they played two sets. The place was packed with friends. Everyone, of course, knew it was the last show, so the energy in the room was tremendous. It was one of those rare moments when you are actually aware of how special something is at the time.

I still have my set list from the show (written in a small notebook given to me by the band’s lead singer, Holland Greco), and I see that they started early – at 9:42 p.m. The original bass player, Chris Gongora, joined them for “Go Back,” which was fantastic. The power went out during that song. (I had forgotten about that.) I remember being thrilled to hear “Straight Lines,” one of my favorites. The second set started at 12:29 a.m., and was an epic run of excellent tunes, including “Moment In Love” (the only time it was ever played).

Though I remember this show being outstanding, that wasn’t anything unusual for this band. The Peak Show delivered the goods every single time they performed. And they always seemed happiest when they played at the compound. So they would play their fucking hearts out. Hell, I remember one time Gabe got so excited, he leapt over his drum kit and ran into the audience – straight into a pole. Soon he was back behind his kit, but blood was pouring down his face and getting into his eyes, and the show ended because the blood in his eyes kept him from being able to see. His sticks were stained red from that show. That’s the kind of energy I’m talking about. So any time I’m in this general area, I feel somewhat elated. That’s how powerful this band’s good vibes were, that a decade later I can just stand near where they played and be positively affected by it. Can you really ask any more of a band?

Occasionally I run into someone else who attended these parties, and what is interesting is that everyone still raves about those nights. They’re special to everyone who was there. My perspective on this is far from unique. For a while after they broke up, I kept hoping each new band I’d see would somehow recreate that same sense of fun, of family, of going for broke every single moment. Of course, it never really happened exactly like that again, though I’ve seen a lot of incredible bands since then.

The Peak Show was a unique band, and I never tire of revisiting these memories and the band’s music. And I will always have very warm feelings toward Highland Park because of that.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Keaton Simons: “Beautiful Pain” (2013) CD Review

Recently I attended the CD release concert for Keaton Simons’ new album, Beautiful Pain. The show was sold out, and the crowd seemed to already know a lot of the new material. Keaton Simons was backed by a really good band, and certainly had a good rapport with the audience. 

And, more importantly, the songs are really good. In a lot of these pop songs he tackles relationships and loneliness, finding himself looking back (until the final tracks, when he looks forward). And it’s all perspective, as he sings in “Black & White”: “The truth ain’t always what it seems/And right or wrong lacks depth to me.” There is something endearing about this collection of songs; even the lesser tracks seem to come from the heart – there is no artifice here. The songs on Beautiful Pain are all original tunes, written or co-written by Keaton Simons.

Keaton Simons kicks off his new album with “Thrill Of It All,” a good, steady pop song with a certain sweet aspect to it. The repetition of “I remember” to start each of the first few opening lines makes us feel he is singing of something that is long gone, even before he sings, “Where did that go.” So when he switches to present tense on “You’re the woman that I won’t let go of,” it comes as kind of a bright surprise. And when he asks, “Do you recall the thrill of it all,” you expect the answer is yes. “Thrill Of It All” was written by Keaton Simons and Josh Zegan.

“The Medicine” is a rock tune with a great edge, both in the vocals and the guitar. This one is a fan favorite (it's one that was requested at the concert). I particularly like the lines, “And I know it’s gonna hurt/But I’m better with you.” It has something of a 1970s rock vibe. “The Medicine” was written by Keaton Simons, Scott Bruzenak and Curtis Peoples.

In “If I Hadn’t Forgotten” Keaton Simons takes an emotional look back at a relationship, wondering how it’s all affected the other person. He sings, “I don’t know if you’ve tried moving On/But I can’t get past the way we left off.” And he feels responsible for how things turned out, as in the lines “Promised you that we would have it all/You trusted me and I let you fall.” It’s an interesting combination – feeling guilty for hurting her, yet at the same time wondering if she’s still hurting, and not knowing. You get the feeling there’s something in him that hopes she’s still hurting, that these feelings aren’t for nothing, and aren’t his alone. Because then he’d really be alone.

“Beautiful Pain,” the title track, is one of the CD’s strongest tracks. There are moments when his vocals make me think of Martin Sexton, the way he delivers certain lines. This song also mentions looking back – “Don’t be afraid of looking back/Everyone has a past.” And the title implies the idea of a pain that you enjoy in some fashion, a pain that you hold onto. “If you’re gonna save a life/Maybe it should be your own.” This song ends quietly, his voice and the acoustic guitar alone for the last line.

“Other Side” is a song expressing a vulnerability, a fear. He opens it with the line, “There’s another darker side of me/Inside the lies.” He wonders if he she’ll love him if she saw him completely, and he needs to be seen. This song, another of the album’s strongest tracks, has a great feel. There is something gorgeous in his need, his desire. Joining him on this track is Mikal Blue on mandolin and piano. The string arrangement is by Ehud Kalder, who also co-wrote the song.

“Read My Mind” is a pretty tune, more in the folk vein, at least at the start. I love the acoustic guitar. In this song, he sings of that excitement of new love, when you look forward. “If you could read my mind/You’d save us both some time.” Beautiful Pain concludes with “Notice Me,” a short, quiet acoustic song. “Did you even notice me yet.”

CD Track List
  1. Thrill Of It All
  2. The Medicine
  3. If I Hadn’t Forgotten
  4. Beautiful Pain
  5. Black & White
  6. Hearts Don’t Break Themselves
  7. Is There Any Other Way
  8. Other Side
  9. Gonna Shine Brighter
  10. You’re The Spark
  11. Inspiration
  12. Read My Mind
  13. Notice Me
Beautiful Pain was released on April 30, 2013 on Best Revenge Records.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Swamp People: Music Inspired By The Television Series (2013) CD Review

I have to say right up front that I’ve never seen the television program Swamp People. I’m coming at this CD as someone who simply loves the music, someone who appreciates a good dose of Cajun fun now and again. And again.

It says on the CD cover, “Music Inspired By The Television Series,” but I somehow doubt that Swamp People, which first aired in 2010, inspired, for example, Hank Williams to write “Jambalaya,” as that song was released in 1952.

Still, this is a very cool collection of music, and includes a kind of funky, somewhat disco-flavored tune from The Neville Brothers, some classics by Hank Williams and Bobby Charles, as well as some newer material.  There are a couple of instrumental tracks, including a great tune by Buckwheat Zydeco and a fun take on a tradition number by Amanda Shaw.

All of these songs are so vibrant and alive. They’re like party songs that don’t even need listeners to carry on the party. The songs themselves do the trick, and you can join in if you wish.

Swamp People opens with Steel Bill’s “Swamp People,” a rather silly song, made sillier by its somewhat earnest, serious delivery. This song celebrates all the stereotypes with lines like, “Hot sauce on almost everything.” He then sings, “There ain’t nothing in the water these boys won’t cook/It’s just their way of life/They chose the lesser evil/Way down in bayou land/They call ‘em swamp people.” This is a new song written specifically for this compilation. It’s not a bad song, but it has the weaknesses inherent in all songs written to fit in with the theme of an existing show.

Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” tells the story of Amos who hunted alligators for a living, an illegal activity. This is a seriously fun and goofy song in which we learn that Amos’ dad used Amos as alligator bait when he was a kid (“tie a rope around his waist and throw him in the swamp”), and this has clearly had some sort of impact on the guy. This song was originally released in 1970, on Jerry Reed’s Georgia Sunshine (and also as a single).

“Zydeco La Louisianne” is an instrumental track by Buckwhere Zydeco that even has a groovy percussion section. This is pure fun, and should liven things up round your place whenever you listen to it. Toss some Mardi Gras beads around.

I’ve always loved “Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White, and I’m so happy to revisit it on this compilation. Seriously, is this one of the coolest songs ever or what? It begins with a bit of spoken word: “Now some of you all never been down south too much/I’m going to tell you a little bit about this so that you understand what I’m talking about.” And he goes on to talk about the plant, polk salad, and then grunts. It’s fantastic. Then the song kicks in, with some great support from the horns. But probably my favorite parts of this song are his seemingly offhand comments. Like after the first time he sings, “Everybody said it was a shame because her mama was working on a chain gang,” he adds, “A mean, vicious woman.” And gives another grunt. Man, oh man. And a bit later he says, “The gators got you granny, chomp, chomp, chomp.” Then there’s a short section on harmonica. This is the kind of song that could be stretched out for a long, long time, and you wouldn’t get tired of it. It’s got such a great rhythm, and the lyrics are totally entertaining. I love the way he plays with the vocals.

“What’s In That Bayou” by Chris Ardoin starts with sound effects of someone lost in the swamp, including slapping an insect, which is lame. But when the song kicks in, it’s pretty cool. It has a somewhat relaxed vibes to the vocals on the song’s title line, with some nice backing vocals. But the accordion has a wild energy and is the highlight of the song. “It’s so spooky and dark/I hear the hungry pack of wolves bark/I’m surrounded by gators and snakes too.”

Of course, “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” is my favorite track. You can never go wrong with Hank Williams. This is one that’s been covered by lots of artists over the years (The Carpenters, Brenda Lee, Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Shocking Blue), but can you beat the original? This track from 1952 is still completely delightful. “Son of a gun/We’ll have big fun/On the bayou.” Indeed.

“Crawfish Walk” by Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone is another that is just wonderful. I really love the work on harmonica on this song. It’s impressive. And the song’s cool vibe is delicious. It reminds me of those great Stax records.  “I try to come up with a reason/Maybe it’s just not the season/I don’t want to get upset/But I feel like I’m caught up in a net/I’m doing the crawfish walk.” This song was originally released on Jumpin' Johnny Sansone's 1997 release, Crescent City Moon.

The Swamp People compilation ends with a classic early rock and roll tune, Bobby Charles’ “See You Later, Alligator.” You all know and love this great tune. The sound on this CD is clearer than I remember it ever being before.

CD Track List

  1. Swamp People – Steel Bill
  2. Amos Moses – Jerry Reed
  3. Zydeco La Louisianne – Buckwheat Zydeco
  4. Polk Salad Annie – Tony Joe White
  5. French Jig – Amanda Shaw
  6. Fire On The Bayou – The Neville Brothers
  7. What’s In That Bayou – Chris Ardoin
  8. Kolinda – Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet
  9. Jambalaya (On The Bayou) – Hank Williams
  10. Cocodrie – Zachary Richard
  11. Crawfish Walk – Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone
  12. Cajun Saturday Night – D.L. Menard
  13. See You Later, Alligator – Bobby Charles

Swamp People is scheduled to be released on May 21, 2013 on Rounder Records through Concord Music Group.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra: “For The Baby Doll” (2013) CD Review

The first thing you’ll notice about For The Baby Doll, the new album by the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, is the packaging. It’s presented as a book, with the CD slipping into a sleeve at the end. The cover sports a photo of Simone de Beauvoir, nude, taken by Art Shay. The book begins with a portion of a T.S. Eliot poem and a piece by Michael Thomas. But the main piece here is a sort of memoir by Nicholas Tremulis. Titled For The Baby Doll, it tells of his early experiences in both Chicago and New York – the music, the drugs, the music, the people, the places, the music. Music runs through everything in my life, and I quickly became captivated by this short story, by its perspective, by the knowledge and experience. All of this is cool, but wouldn’t matter if the CD didn’t have great music to back it up. Fortunately, this album has a lot of great songs. All of the tracks are originals, written or co-written by Nicholas Tremulis.

The album opens with “Pitiful,” a good, loose rock tune. And yes, it uses the familiar line “I been down so long it seems like up to me,” but saves it with the next line, “Oh, but baby, it’s up to you too.” It’s when the horns come in that I really begin to dig this song. That’s Roger Reupert on trumpet and Paul Mertens on saxophone. Later some backing vocals echo his “Pitiful.” (He seems, of course, to mean “pitiable” rather than “pitiful,” but maybe I should let that slide. Should I expect the correct use of language from rock music?) This song mentions the Baby Doll directly; the Baby Doll Lounge was a strip joint.

I love how “You’re Gonna Lose (Everything You Got)” comes on strong. It’s a rock song with that great timeless groove and a lot of energy in the vocal performance. There is some awesome stuff on guitar, and some good lyrics to match. Check out these lines: “Some day baby when you’re looking back/In the final hour when you fade to black/You will reach out, honey, for a sweet caress/But it’ll only be the devil tearing at your dress.” (In the liner notes, there is a mistake in the lyrics. The line is printed as “You’re gonna loose everything you got.”)

“Without You With Me” has a much sweeter pop feel.  It’s a song about writing songs and keeping a relationship going, so the relationship comes out in the songs (like how a relationship is affected by the music, and how the music is affected by the relationship). He starts by saying this one is about her, about the way her hair hangs. “My head was in a funky place/I don’t wanna run this race/Without you with me.”  And then, “We’re driving down another album/One more little lonely bridge of midnight rambling.” He even tosses in a “Sugar, sugar” toward the end.

After a brief mellow introduction, “Lost Without You” kicks in with a fantastic energy. This song has an urgency, a definite drive, plus some cool backing vocals by Renee Robinson and Shawn Christopher. At the end it breaks down to just vocals and acoustic guitar, for a moment, before a final explosion, and a soft, gorgeous send-off by the backing vocalists.

“You’re Too Much (But Never Enough)” has a kind of kick-ass southern rock vibe with a pace to exhaust you. Yeah, I fucking love it. And that classic, tough, wise-ass delivery of the title line, “You’re too much, baby, but never enough,” is great. This is just an honest rock tune, with references to early rock and roll songs like “Long Tall Sally” and “Reelin’ And Rockin.’"

“If God Were The Devil” has a fantastic 1960s pop feel right from the start, particularly in its rhythm. Then the backing vocals come in, greatly adding to that feel. And then the strings (Susan Voelz of Poi Dog Pondering on violins) add more to that. After that sound is established, Nicholas Tremulis’ vocals come in with lyrics that maybe wouldn’t quite have happened back at that time: “If God were the devil/If God were the devil/Well, he would know just what to say to make you mine.”  There is something in his vocal delivery on this one that reminds me just a bit of some of John Lennon’s work on Rock 'N' Roll, his 1975 record of rock and roll covers. The song builds into a big Phil Spector-like production sound. And it ends with beautiful backing vocals by Renee Robinson. This is one of my personal favorites.

For The Baby Doll concludes with “Walk In The Sun Again,” an unabashed love song. That early 1960s drum beat immediately calls to mind an innocence and also an excitement, basically everything you associate with youth. But the lyrics are coming from a place of experience: “I have loved you, girl, for more than I remember/We’ve seen bitter days, but never apart/I know it’s getting dark/You’re worried and I know it/I feel it in my heart, but I’m trying not to show it.” And it has a hopeful tone, with the line, “Oh baby, we will walk in the sun again.” Adding to the innocence of the song is Nicholas Tremulis’ daughter Electra providing backing vocals.

CD Track List
  1. Pitiful
  2. You’re Gonna Lose (Everything You Got)
  3. Without You With Me
  4. Lost Without You
  5. Everybody Here
  6. You’re Too Much (But Never Enough)
  7. If God Were The Devil
  8. Push It
  9. Super Human Love
  10. For The Baby Doll
  11. Walk In The Sun Again

The Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra is Nicholas Tremulis on lead vocals, guitar and keyboards; John Pirruccello on guitar and vocals; Rick Barnes on guitar, vocals and percussion; Derek Brand on bass; and Larry Beers on drums and percussion.

Joining them for this release are Roger Reupert on trumpet, Paul Mertens on saxophone, Susan Voelz on violins, Ivan Julian on guitar, Blondie Chaplin on guitar and backing vocals, Renee Robinson on backing vocals, Shawn Christopher on backing vocals, and Electa Tremulis on backing vocals.

For The Baby Doll is scheduled to be released on June 18, 2013.

Keaton Simons at Hotel Café, Los Angeles, 5-4-13 Concert Review

Before the start of Keaton Simons’ set at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 4th, there was an announcement that the show was sold out, and that anyone not wearing an orange wristband had to leave. I’ve been to the Hotel Café many times, and had never heard an announcement like that before. It was always sort of understood that if you bought a ticket for one band’s set that you could stay and enjoy all of the other bands on the bill that night. This was really the first indication to me that I was in for something special.

When at 11 p.m. the house music went off and the audience cheered, Keaton Simons asked, “Does that mean we’re starting the show?” The band then kicked off their set with "Mama Song," a song with a good solid rock groove. They added a bit of funk to it, and led into a good jam, the song drifting in to “I’m A Man,” with some vocal play, before going back into "Mama Song."

Keaton Simons requested a bottle of water before starting “Thrill Of It All,” the opening track of his new album, Beautiful Pain. (As this performance was the CD release show, he played quite a few tracks from this album.) By the end of the song, several bottles had been brought to the stage. Keaton Simons switched to his acoustic guitar for the new album’s title track. This is a really good song, and is the one that got me interested in him when I first heard it. He sings, “If you’re gonna save a life/Maybe it should be your own.”

Keaton stayed with the acoustic guitar for “Read My Mind,” another song that I dug right from the start, and “Inspiration.” “Inspiration” is a quieter song, and during it some audience members hushed the louder folks. (Patrons at Hotel Café often tend to talk through concerts, which is one reason I like to be up in the front, and away from most of them.) Toward the end of the song, they sang part of it a cappella (well, with the kick drum), and the audience sang along. Keaton asked the audience to close its eyes (oddly, something the previous band also did at one point).

After “Inspiration” Keaton asked the crowd, “How are you guys doing?” Of course the audience cheered, and so he responded, “That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say.” Perfect. (Whenever musicians ask the audience, “How are you?” I’m tempted to just shout out, “I’m doing all right, thanks for asking” – and sometimes I do. I didn’t at this show, however.)

Keaton switched back to the electric guitar for "Grim Reaper." During this song, he introduced the drummer, Robin DiMaggio (who plays drums on the new album), and that led to a drum solo. This solo developed organically from the song and then built from there (which is what drum solos should do, but often don’t). That led to a keyboard lead section by David Garner, and the resulting jam was possibly the best moment of the show. It was just great. There was also a section with Darwin Johnson taking a lead on bass, which was cool.

Later in the set Keaton Simons played a new song, “Nobody Falls Halfway,” a pretty love song.

Vocalist Andy Allo joined the band for a fun cover of "Masterpiece," performed with a bit of “I Got A Woman” added in the middle. Then Billy Morrison joined the band on electric guitar for “The Medicine,” a song that was requested earlier. He stayed on for the set closer, the Beatles’ “With A  Little Help From My Friends.” They did the song more like the Joe Cocker version, including the scream. It was pretty fucking great.

The encore was The Band’s “The Weight.” You can never go wrong playing “The Weight” as your encore. They did the last verse a cappella. The show ended at 12:35 a.m. After the show, Keaton went out back to sign CDs for fans. And there were a lot of folks back there (something that is also unusual for the Hotel Café crowd).

Set List
  1. Mama Song >
  2. I’m A Man >
  3. Mama Song
  4. Thrill Of It All
  5. You’re The Spark
  6. Beautiful Pain
  7. Read My Mind
  8. Inspiration
  9. Grim Reaper
  10. Skyfall
  11. Hearts Don’t Break Themselves
  12. Other Side
  13. Nobody Falls Halfway
  14. Masterpiece
  15. The Medicine
  16. With A Little Help From My Friends
  1. The Weight