Monday, March 19, 2018

The Flying Horse Big Band: “The Bat Swings!” (2018) CD Review

As you are likely aware, the world has gone completely sideways, and total assholes are running (and ruining) the show. How do we combat that? Sometimes it seems what we need is something silly, perhaps even ridiculous. Enter The Flying Horse Big Band, in costume. In Batman and Robin costumes, to be precise. Yes, this is what is required: classic superheroes with horns. Let’s send them to the White House to POW! BANG! WHACK! Donald Trump and the other bad guys. They can wrap up this mess in a half hour (actually, it took the dynamic duo two episodes back in the day, so a full hour), and we can all go back outside and play. By the way – and no arguing with me on this – Adam West was far and away the best Batman. I loved that show as a kid, and I love it even more as an adult. Funniest damn show in the history of American television. And those characters understood proper grammar! Geez, they could defeat Donald Trump on that point alone.

The Bat Swings! features compositions written by Nelson Riddle for the classic series, but with new arrangements, some of them by Michael Philip Mossman (ooh, Mossman sounds like a comic book villain, so watch out!). And there are a couple of other non-Batman tunes. The band is made up of Ryan Waszmer on guitar, Luther Burke on bass, Mudel Honore on piano and organ, Gus D’Angelo on drums, Courtland Beyer on trumpet, Taylor Grubbs on trumpet, Aidan Lakshman on trumpet, Marco Rivera on trumpet, Matt Kerr on trombone, Christian Herrera on trombone, Brian Morris on trombone, Juwan Murphy on trombone, Saul Dautch on baritone saxophone, Andy Garcia on tenor saxophone, Dylan Hannan on tenor saxophone, Kristian Rey on alto saxophone and flute, and Dylan Young on alto saxophone. They also have a few guests joining them on several tracks.

These musical marvels get things going with “Batmobile To Airport,” which has little teases of the “Batman Theme.” We all wanted a Batmobile of our own, didn’t we? Well, settle back and let this big band take you on a cruise around Gotham City. There is a short drum solo just before the end. Jeff Moore plays bongos on this one, and Marty Morell is on vibes. Michael Philip Mossman did the arrangement. Between tracks there is a brief Batman musical cue, like we’re switching locations or something. A wonderful and unexpected treat. Cues like this one are included after several tracks, and are labeled “Bat-Spin,” and if you recall the show, that will make total sense. That’s followed by “Batman Riddles The Riddler,” a cool, groovy jazz number. Ah, who among us can honestly say that he or she hasn’t at least once said, “Riddle me this, Batman”? Mark Taylor did the arrangement for this track, and Marty Morell joins the group on congas. Then, after another brief cue from the show, we get “Batman Blues,” which is a kind of sexy (and at times brash) strut. Cat Woman must be around here somewhere. This is a very cool tune, with plenty of great stuff from the horns. It was arranged by Harry Allen.

There is no “Bat-Spin” after “Batman Blues.” What follows is the “Spider-Man Theme.” Why not? Sure, it’s a bit of a departure from the dynamic duo, but it’s a seriously fun tune, and this is a completely enjoyable take on it. Check out that groovy work on organ, and that cool stuff on guitar. Jeff Rupert (who directs the band) arranged this one. A Batman musical cue takes us from Spider-man back to Batman. And here is Cat Woman, or Miss Kitka, as she calls herself in the 1966 movie. “Kitka” begins with a big of intrigue, a bit of mystery, and soon turns sexy and romantic. By the end of this song, Batman and Cat Woman should be shacking up. There is some really good drumming in the second half of this track, and for a moment it seems like the tune is finished. But then it kicks in again, sounding playful. Things turn romantic again toward the end, as the cat and the bat do a slow dance toward stately Wayne Manor for some interspecies coupling.

“Holy-Hole-In-The Doughnut” sounds from its title like it will be the goofiest track, driven with a youthful Robin-like energy, but it is actually a mellow, easygoing tune with a bossa nova vibe. This one was arranged by Per Danielsson. “Murciélago En La Cueva” (meaning “bat in the cave”) is perhaps the most interesting track, a strange collection of nods to the series, with a bit of that great theme mixed in (isn’t the Batman theme one of the best television theme tunes of all time?). Yeah, it is a joy listening to this track. The CD then concludes, oddly, with a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It’s wonderful, though – as far as I know – unrelated to the caped crusader. But it’s such a hopeful song that I am happy to hear it. Hey, the whole country seems lost these days, but perhaps soon it will be found.

CD Track List
  1. Batmobile To Airport
  2. Bat-Spin
  3. Batman Riddles The Riddler
  4. Bat-Spin
  5. Batman Blues
  6. Spider-Man Theme
  7. Bat-Spin
  8. Kitka
  9. Bat-Spin
  10. Holy-Hole-In-The-Doughnut
  11. Bat-Spin
  12. Murciélago En La Cueva
  13. Amazing Grace 
The Bat Swings! was released on March 12, 2018 on Flying Horse Records.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Grateful Dead: “Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, Washington, D.C., July 12 & 13, 1989” (2017) CD Review

Quite a bit of the Grateful Dead’s 1989 summer tour has been officially released – July 4th became Truckin’ Up To Buffalo, on both CD and DVD, and July 7th was released as Crimson, White & Indigo, while July 17th was released on VHS and DVD as Downhill From Here (and the following two nights were Meet-Up At The Movies selections) I saw only one show that summer, July 2nd, which has not yet been released, though it was shown in movie theatres a couple of years ago. I’ll be patient. In the meantime, two more shows from that tour have been released in a box set – July 12th and July 13th at RFK Stadium in D.C. This six-disc set also includes a booklet with thoughts on the show and lots of photos.

July 12, 1989

The guys open the first show with “Touch Of Grey,” the band’s only big hit (and the song they chose to open my first show on April 7, 1988), and the song that taught me the meaning of “arrears.” This is a good, cheerful rendition, perfect to get you dancing. Jerry sounds so fucking happy, especially toward the end of the song, and that is enough to make me happy. “We will get by/We will survive.” I need to hear that these days. Bob then turns thing a little rougher with an excellent “New Minglewood Blues,” with Brent doing something approaching scat at one point. It’s a solid rendition, with Bob giving it to us straight. It’s no wonder so much has been released from this tour; the boys were on! And Jerry clearly has energy to spend; you can hear it in the way he delivers “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo.” Then, for those in the Phil Zone, the band goes into the Bob Dylan song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and Phil is certainly having a good time with it. I always loved seeing the band cover this song, in large part because of what Phil would do with the vocal line and lyrics. Here he sings, “They got some hungry creatures there” instead of “hungry women” and he adds a humorous “woo” at one point. And it sounds like he changes “My best friend, my doctor” to “My best friend, my drummer.” And the crowd is totally digging it. Then Brent gets a turn, with an energetic version of “Far From Me,” shouting out “No, we can’t fucking relate at all.” Man, Brent is letting it all out here, at the end singing, “This song is my last fucking song for you, bitch.” Bob then leads the band into one of my favorites, “Cassidy.” Hey, is there a bit of a “Land Of 1000 Dances” tease in this version, first in the tuning before the song starts, and then in the jam for just a moment? Jerry then eases into “Friend Of The Devil.” A vocal miscue is a cause for some laughter among the crowd, but this is a good version. The first set concludes with Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.”

The second set opens with a nice “Sugaree,” with guest Bruce Hornsby playing accordion (Bruce Hornsby And The Range opened the show). He would, more or less, become a member of the band a little over a year later, after the death of Brent Mydland. Bruce also sits in on a fun and rousing rendition of “Man Smart, Woman Smarter,” which features some delicious work on keys. I love the verse sung by Brent, but it is the jamming that makes this version something special. And there is a wonderful vocal jam toward the end. This is one of the best versions of this one the band ever did. Jerry follows that with a passionate “Ship Of Fools.” Then comes one of the best combinations, “Estimated Prophet” into “Eyes Of The World” (sometimes done as “Eyes Of The World” into “Estimated Prophet”). “Estimated Prophet” builds in intensity, with Bob belting out “Glory, glory!” and later giving us those great shouts. The jam is good, and “Eyes Of The World” emerges from it. They don’t spend too much time on it before Jerry goes into the first verse. At ten minutes or so, it’s certainly not a very long version, but the band packs some tight jamming between verses, and the pace has a sense of urgency. This is not a laid-back, exploratory “Eyes,” and it’s only a couple of minutes after the final verse that the drummers take over. Right before that, Jerry offers some surprisingly pretty work on guitar. Bill and Mickey rumble toward us like a dark and hungry yet powerful beast, before getting into stranger, more thoughtful territory, but with the beast never far away, at one point ready to rise straight out into space from a volcano.

The third disc picks up with an odd and at times unsettling “Space,” the drummers sticking around for the first part of it. Is that like a weird steady footstep, that popping? And at times it feels like a demented spirit leading a carnival. When the band emerges from “Space,” they move into “I Need A Miracle,” taking a few moments to get into it. I believe “I Need A Miracle” was the first Grateful Dead song I ever heard. When I was seven or eight, traveling on the school bus, it played on the bus radio (I think the station was WAAF). I had no idea what band it was, but I liked the song. From there, they ease into “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” This time, there is no “Hey Jude” refrain, but instead Jerry takes the band into a nice “Black Peter.” The second set then wraps up with “Turn On Your Lovelight.” The encore is “Black Muddy River,” a beautiful and moving song that I never got a chance to see the Dead perform.

July 13, 1989

The second night opens with the briefest of “Dark Star” teases, which must have gotten the crowd excited, even if the acid hadn’t quite taken hold yet. After a bit of tuning, the band gets things going with “Hell In A Bucket.” “I may be going to hell in a bucket/But at least I’m enjoying the ride.” And I’ve always loved the lines about dancing – or crawling – across someone’s grave. This version has a lot of energy. More tuning follows, and then they deliver a good version of “Cold Rain And Snow.” Do these choices of opening numbers show a bit more attitude than the previous night? Maybe, for Bob then dips into the blues with “Little Red Rooster.” “Dogs begin to bark now, hounds begin to howl.” It’s blues with a good groove. And if it’s attitude you want, just wait until that section when Brent takes over on vocals. Bruce Hornsby then joins the band on accordion for “Tennessee Jed,” and his presence seems to energize Jerry more. “Catch a few winks, baby, down under the bed/Then you head back to Tennessee Jed.” Bruce Hornsby also plays on Dylan’s “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again.” But it is with “To Lay Me Down” that the band really grabs me. This is a moving rendition, with some beautiful blending of voices. Powerful, wonderful. And it seems that Bob wants to keep that going with his choice of “Let It Grow” to conclude the first set, and it’s an excellent version with a strong jam – a nice finish to the first set, and something to get folks excited and optimistic about the second set.

Certainly no one that night was disappointed when they kicked off the second set with “He’s Gone.” Oh yes, listen to Jerry shout out the line, “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.” And yet this version has a kind of easygoing vibe that I love, and the vocal section at the end is absolutely wonderful. What a fantastic way to start the second set. Then “Looks Like Rain” begins gently, and quickly builds to something beautiful. “But it’s all right, ‘cause I love you/That’s not gonna change.” I love Bob’s vocals on this version. But is that real thunder or a thunder sound effect toward the end (starting around the six-minute mark and getting more intense around the seven-minute mark)? Weird, particularly as I’ve heard an audience recording of this show, and I don’t recall that noise on that recording. That leads to “Terrapin Station,” a song that always seemed to contain its own special magic. And this rendition is no exception, lifting me with the line “Inspiration, move me brightly,” and transporting me to another realm. “And I know we’ll be there soon.” The “Drums” segment follows, and soon it’s clear we are still in an unusual realm, a strange jungle, part of a tribe, part of a ritual. Things turn darker later on, as we edge toward “Space.”

The final disc begins with “Space,” which seems to thrust us into another world, an eerie dawn, during which some strange intelligence communicates with us, ultimately setting us at ease. And the band then brings us back, quite literally saying “I Will Take You Home,” Brent’s sweet song to his daughter. I love the way it comes out of “Space,” one of those perfect moments, promising us all that things are okay. But of course, things are about to get crazier again, as the band goes into “The Other One,” kind of easing into it at first, and we wait for that explosion, anticipating it, feeling it even before it arrives. This is one of the band’s most interesting songs, because they approached it differently every time. Or the song approached – or overtook – the band differently each time. And this time it becomes intense and fantastic, a breathing, pulsing monster with multiple limbs, tossing us about, not quite contained. It then slides into “Wharf Rat,” another of the band’s best and most powerful songs. And this night the band is on; listen to those vocals, listen to the crowd responding. “Wharf Rat” leads to “Throwing Stones,” a song that feels particularly pertinent these days (I suppose it always was). “The darkness never goes from some men’s eyes.” Indeed. “The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own.” I love the way Bob repeats “On our own.” And instead of going into “Not Fade Away,” the band chooses to end the second set with “Good Lovin’,” with Brent taking a verse. The encore – so appropriate to the concert’s Washington D.C. setting, and to our lives right now – is “U.S. Blues.”

Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, Washington, D.C., July 12 & 13, 1989 was released on November 10, 2017. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Chip Taylor: “Fix Your Words” (2018) CD Review

Though perhaps still best known for writing songs that became hits for other artists, Chip Taylor has been releasing his own material for decades, and just put out a new album. Titled Fix Your Words, it features all original material. Inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame two years ago, Chip Taylor has written songs like “Wild Thing,” “Son Of A Rotten Gambler,” “I Can Make It With You,” “Any Way That You Want Me” and “Angel Of The Morning.” And he continues to write excellent material, as Fix Your Words clearly demonstrates. The first time I put on this album, it was late at night, and I had planned on listening to only a few tracks, just to get a sense of the style and the music, with the intention of listening to the rest in the morning, but I was pulled in, and stayed up late listening to the whole thing. It is a tremendous album.

Fix Your Words opens with the title track, and how fitting a song for the man known for his songwriting – a song that is partially about words and communication. “It’s the tone you choose/When you speak your dream/It’s the way you say what you mean/Words are hammers.” Wow, the way he delivers the line “And a gentle word, forgiveness” is so moving and eloquent. This is a song of experience, of pain, of compassion, of some wisdom, delivered at times with a sense of urgency. It is one of my personal favorites. It is followed by “Whatever Devil Is In Me.” There is something intimate about his delivery here, like he’s leaning in to whisper directly in your ear. “Whatever kindness in me, draw your sword/Whatever goodness has been held back, speak your word/I’ve heard you, but not enough times/Until this time/And it’s about time you were heard.” The way he delivers these lines, and this entire song, is captivating, almost heartbreaking.

There is something sweet and delicate, yet also just a bit playful about “A Little Bit Of Underground,” as when he sings, “The most soulful music I have ever found is a little bit of underground.”  And I love the backing vocals, which are gorgeous, yet soft and gentle (reminding a bit of the way Leonard Cohen often used his backing vocalists). “I want to let that music play.” Amen. There is a strange false ending to this one, which I have mixed feelings about. I do love the harmonica part after this false ending. “A Little Bit Of Underground” is followed by “The Ground Moving Around Me,” one of the most striking tracks on this disc. The way he sings “We are definitely in this together” at the beginning grabbed me. That line, and the way he delivers it caught me by surprise, and I found myself smiling. Damn, this is sweet, and it’s a good, positive, important message for us to hear these days. “And we will change it (change it)/Fix it (fix it)/Heal it/Heal it.” I want to call him right now and thank him for this song. I admit, I needed it. My lesser qualities have often come to the surface lately in reaction to news from the nation’s capital, and in reaction to followers of the man pretending to be president, and I need to not let myself succumb to the worst of me in acknowledging and battling the worst of them. This song is a gentle and loving reminder of who we all can be, what we can do, and what is important. “This weakness, we don’t need it anymore.” By the way, in this song Chip Taylor alludes to an earlier song, “Fuck All The Perfect People” (a wonderful song that opens with a reference to Hamlet), in the line “And now I am thinking about all the perfect people out there.” And then in “Love Knows The Cloud,” he sings, “So don’t give up/We will do just fine.”

In “When I Was A Kid,” Chip Taylor tells us a story of his childhood, and about liking Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, most of it delivered as spoken word. “Not that Hank Williams wasn’t great/He was certainly great/But Luke the Drifter, he was sad/He said sad things, and that’s what I wanted to hear.” Sometimes those sad songs are what we need to hear to feel better. “And I believe that true happiness/Comes from allowing yourself to feel your sadness/Don’t go letting anybody tell you something different than that.” “When I Was A Kid” is followed by “When He Goes… He Goes,” a song of complete love and pain. It begins with these lines: “One heart in love, one heart in pain/She’s found another/And he still feels the same/And he always will/You know that kind of guy/When he goes…he goes.” Yes, it’s all or nothing. And is there anything better than loving someone completely? Interestingly, this song contains the lines “He’ll stay alone there in his mind/In that hiding place where only lovers find/In their crazy dreams,” connecting it to the next song, “Crazy Dreams Crazy,” another song of love and ache. I appreciate the touches on fiddle by Bonnie Sue Walters. The album then concludes with “You Just Think You Changed Your Mind,” yet another completely engaging song. At moments, this is heartbreaking, as when he sings “And only sometimes that dream is me/Oh, come on now/Don’t give me those tears,” and even when he takes an audible breath after “And you’ll be happy” before adding “maybe.” That moment nearly destroyed me. Ordinarily I don’t like to hear a singer’s breath (I can’t stand listening to Tori Amos, for example), but here that breath is effective, giving away more than perhaps words could. You have to hear it. This is an excellent song.

CD Track List
  1. Fix Your Words
  2. Whatever Devil Is In Me
  3. If I Am
  4. A Little Bit Of Underground
  5. The Ground Moving Around Me
  6. Love Knows The Clouds
  7. We Have Not To Say
  8. When I Was A Kid
  9. When He Goes… He Goes
  10. Crazy Dreams Crazy
  11. You Just Think You Changed Your Mind 
Fix Your Words was released on March 2, 2018 on Train Wreck Records.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Sue Foley: “The Ice Queen” (2018) CD Review

Sue Foley is a singer and songwriter working in the blues realm. Originally from Canada, she has been working mostly in Austin, Texas, and her new album, The Ice Queen, features some famous Texas musicians. Charlie Sexton, Jimmie Vaughan, and Billy F. Gibbons all join her on various tracks. This album features mostly original material, written by Sue Foley. She has been releasing albums since the early 1990s, but The Ice Queen is her first release on Stony Plain Records. The album was produced by Mike Flanigan, who also plays organ on many of the tracks.

The album gets off to a good start with “Come To Me,” which has a loose, somewhat slow Bo Diddley beat, and so something of a raw feel. Sue Foley has a great voice; it is sexy, strong, and cool, and when she urges, “Come to me, my darling,” who could refuse? Charlie Sexton provides vocals and plays slide guitar on this track. Charlie Sexton also joins Sue Foley on “81,” which follows. This is a slow, bluesy rock number, with a nice jam featuring good work on electric guitar. “You’ve got a cloud around your brain/And you’ve been driving through the rain/Until you wash away all that shame/You’ll be here again and again and again and again.” And I love the way she delivers the lines, “You’re low on fuel/You’re short on hope.” Chris “Whipper” Layton, known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan, plays drums on these first two tracks.

Things then kick into a more rockin’ gear with “Run,” which is delivered by just the trio of Sue Foley on vocals and guitar, Johnny Bradley on bass and George Rains on drums. And so it has a kind of rough bar band vibe, which I dig. Grab a beer, turn up the volume, and shake things up a bit. “I had to run/Out of the door, into the sun/I had to run.” That’s followed by “The Ice Queen,” the album’s title track, which begins as a mellow blues exploration, with a familiar, classic sound. This one is also done by the trio, though this time with Billy Horton on upright bass. “They call me the ice queen/Because I’m cool and I’m detached.” Oh, she’s cool all right, no question, but I don’t think she’s detached. “And all the men agree/I’m too slippery to catch.” There is something sexy about the way she delivers that line. There is also something sexy about the guitar work on this one, supported by the cool bass line. “They call me the ice queen/They don’t know me all that well/Before I compromise my love again/It will be a cold damn day in hell.”

Jimmie Vaughan joins Sue on vocals and guitar for “The Lucky Ones,” a fun blues number featuring some nice work on organ by Mike Flanigan. Sue and Jimmie deliver this one as a duet, and that gives the song a very positive feel, as they sing, “We are the lucky ones/We’re the fortunate sons/We’ve only just begun/We’re the lucky ones.” This one too has a classic, timeless vibe, and features some wonderful work on guitar. Its lyrics mention both Canada and Austin. Billy F. Gibbons joins Sue Foley on “Fool’s Gold,” playing guitar and harmonica, as well as providing vocals. In fact, he starts this one with that great rough voice of his. “Shines so bright in the ground/I pick it up, what you found/It’s fool’s gold/Yeah, that’s fool’s gold/Just a dream that you hold/Yeah, it’s fool’s gold.” Man, I can’t believe it’s been more than thirty years since I saw ZZ Top in concert. “Fool’s Gold” was written by Sue Foley and Mike Flanigan.

Sue Foley has horn players on a couple of tracks, the first of which is “Gaslight,” a groovy, fun number with some fine work on guitar. I like Sue Foley’s voice, and the way she delivers certain lines, but I think her guitar work is even more impressive. And of course I dig the horns on this track. Ephraim Owens is on trumpet, and Elias Haslanger is on tenor saxophone. The other track to feature horns is “If I Have Forsaken You,” and they are prominent right from this track’s fantastic opening. The horns certainly help to make this probably the disc’s best track, but this song also features my favorite vocal performance of the album. Sue Foley’s voice is sexy, beautiful, enchanting here. By the way, The Texas Horns are the folks playing on this track.

“Death Of A Dream” also features a beautiful, moving vocal performance, and is another of this album’s highlights. This one holds me from its opening moments. Sue Foley sings, “I found myself falling under his spell,” and that is just how I feel while listening to this song. Wonderful. That’s followed by “The Dance,” which Sue Foley performs solo – just vocals and guitar, with a gorgeous flamenco style to the guitar-playing. Here too she sings, “I find myself falling under your spell.” And again, I feel I’m under Sue’s own spell. “I never felt so alive/I wanted to die.” There is a little studio banter at the end of the track.

Sue Foley delivers a seriously fun rendition of “Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair,” one of only two covers on this album. The album concludes with its other cover, “Cannonball Blues,” this one done by Sue Foley solo. Here she turns to folk with this Carter Family song written by A.P. Carter. “Listen to the train coming down the track/Carrying me away, but it ain’t gonna carry me back.”

CD Track List
  1. Come To Me
  2. 81
  3. Run
  4. The Ice Queen
  5. The Lucky Ones
  6. Gaslight
  7. Fool’s Gold
  8. If I Have Forsaken You
  9. Send Me To The ‘Lectric Chair
  10. Death Of A Dream
  11. The Dance
  12. Cannonball Blues
The Ice Queen was released on March 2, 2018 on Stony Plain Records.