The fifth beatle


George Martin passed away yesterday at the age of 90. The music he helped created more than 50 years ago has become a part of my life and the lives of so many others. 

When I was in kindergarten in 1974 and 75, my sister Karen (who was in high school at the time) bought the Beatles 1962-66 and 1967-70 compilations (the “red” and “blue” albums), and as a result, all the songs on those albums bring back extremely potent childhood memories and were essentially my introduction to the Beatles. I also remember a few Wings albums getting a lot of play in our house shortly afterwards (Band on the Run and Wings at the Speed of Sound), and of course, I remember when John Lennon died. I was 11 years old, living in Nashua, New Hampshire with my mother and older brother. I came downstairs for breakfast before school the next morning and my mother was listening to news reports on the radio. I still remember that little blue and white AM radio in our kitchen.

A couple of months later, in February 1981, my brother and I went to Orlando to visit my father, who had recently moved there (the two of us would move their ourselves a couple of years later). He had a VCR, the first one we’d ever seen. This enormous Magnavox top-loader with a non-wireless remote control – it cost about a thousand dollars. Anyway, one night he took us down to this mysterious business called a “video rental store.” How modern! One of the movies we rented was Let It Be, the difficult, fractured documentary about the making of that difficult, fractured album. It’s important to note the presence of that VHS tape on the commercial market, seeing as how it’s virtually impossible to find in any format nowadays. And I suppose it planted a seed. I enjoyed it as I enjoy any “making of” film about a musical venture.

Other than random footage from the Let it Be sessions, I still hadn’t really heard any deep album cuts from the Beatles at that point – the red and blue albums were still my only true reference point. In 1984, HBO celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in the United States by playing a whole bunch of Beatles-related programming during the month of February. I remember watching (and loving) The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, a mockumentary by Monty Python’s Eric Idle about a fictional Beatlesque band, featuring tons of cameos including Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, John Belushi, and even George Harrison. HBO also showed George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, in addition to a smattering of Beatles solo music videos (in case we really needed a reason to check out the video for Ringo’s “Stop and Smell the Roses”), and a documentary that sort of changed my musical outlook, called The Compleat Beatles. This 1982 documentary, narrated by Malcolm McDowell, probably doesn’t contain much information not already familiar to rabid Beatles scholars, but for someone like me, who had very limited knowledge of the band at the time, it was a revelation. Their upbringing, Stu Sutcliffe, the Hamburg Years, the Beatlemania, the “bigger than Jesus” controversy, the psychedelic stages, Yoko Ono, the breakup – it was all unfamiliar to me and was documented in fascinating detail.

George Martin is one of the people interviewed, and he’s featured extensively. He talks about his initial, historic meetings with the band, the decision to replace drummer Pete Best, the suggestion of arranging “Yesterday” as a string quartet, recruiting a trumpet player to play a solo in “Penny Lane,” rearranging tape splices in random order to create the psychedelic audio effects of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and so much more. He was not only the producer of arguably the greatest band in the world, he was also one of the first producers I ever listened to extensively discuss studio techniques. It was fascinating to hear how everything came together. The Compleat Beatles, by the way, is basically impossible to find – you may be able to locate segments on YouTube, but apparently Apple purchased the rights to the documentary in order to prevent it from competing with their own Beatles Anthology. A shame, really, because it’s an excellent, concise history of the band.

The Compleat Beatles gave me the incentive to seek out individual, non-compilation Beatles albums, particularly The Beatles, a.k.a. The White Album – hearing snippets of that album in the documentary had such a profound effect on me that I begged to get the album for my birthday the following month. It’s still my favorite Beatles album. I suppose The White Album is hardly the best place to go to seek Martin’s production genius – it’s wildly, refreshingly experimental, but the personal issues beset by the band members caused Martin (and engineer Geoff Emerick) to stay an arm’s length from the band during the making of the album (although he is credited as producer). He was replaced by Phil Spector for the Let it Be album and brought back (to wonderful effect) on Abbey Road.

There have been countless contributors to the Beatles legacy that have been labeled “the Fifth Beatle,” but George Martin was the real deal. It’s hard to imagine the band doing what they did without his guidance.

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The stars look very different today



David Bowie released his final studio album, Blackstar, last Friday, on his 69th birthday. I bought the vinyl version on Amazon, and while it hasn’t been delivered to my house yet, I was able to download all the tracks immediately. It’s a bold, beautiful, very Bowie-esque work of art. I spent most of Friday and the weekend listening to it. I even posted a photo to Instagram on Saturday afternoon of my son and I listening to the album in the car while running errands. And as is usually the case when a favorite artist releases a new album, I decided to rediscover the catalog and subsequently transferred about 25 complete Bowie albums from my hard drive to my  iPod.

Little did I know how much I would appreciate that move when I woke up this morning. Checking up on social media just before getting in the shower, I saw a headline that I honestly thought was some sort of “album release publicity stunt.” I mean, Bowie’s certainly done weirder stuff than that. But no. It really happened.

I honestly don’t remember when I first heard David Bowie. When I was living with my family outside Paris from 1974 to 1979 (from the ages of five to ten), there was a lot of rock music played on our living room stereo, but since we didn’t listen to the radio, my musical experiences didn’t really extend beyond whatever records my three older siblings were buying (or borrowing). Bowie never seemed to make it to our turntable, so it was probably around 1979, when we returned to the States and listened to the radio, that I first experienced Bowie’s magic. “Under Pressure,” his perfect, shimmering collaboration with Queen, was inescapable in 1981 when it was first released, and as a die-hard Queen fan, it piqued my interest (but in all honesty, it took YEARS for that song to click with me – I have no idea why, since I adore the song nowadays).

When MTV came around, it seemed like the perfect platform for an image-conscious chameleon like Bowie. Say what you will about MTV’s toxicity (and current irrelevance): in its early days, when so few artists were making music videos, MTV played anything and everything (expect black music – more on that later), giving exposure to a lot of artists who wouldn’t otherwise get that kind of love from a television network. Bowie, of course, didn’t need the exposure; he was already a household name. But since he’d already been making videos for years, he slid right into the music television playlist like it was tailor-made for him. Videos for “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” (a personal favorite of mine) were all over MTV and they were only too happy to have him. He went on to use this platform as an opportunity to take MTV to task for not featuring enough artists of color.

Bowie was a restless experimenter, and by the time the music video revolution hit, he’d already been – among other things – Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, and the author of the highly-regarded Berlin Trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” Lodger). But for his first album of the MTV era, he decided to make a commercial pop record, Let’s Dance. It’s easy to sneer at the thought of someone so prolific and deep as Bowie making this kind of move, but like everything he’s done, it’s framed by reinvention. A refusal to stand still and do what’s expected. And while it may not break much artistic ground and is in fact a “pop” record, Let’s Dance is a damn good pop record. It refuses to apologize for this. It’s loose, fun and catchy. Bowie rode the wave and followed up Let’s Dance with what are generally perceived to be his two worst albums (Tonight and Never Let Me Down), but it’s a testament to his talent that these missteps did little to nothing to tarnish his reputation. The guy could make an album consisting of recorded bodily functions and it would simply be filed away as his “Bodily Function Era.” Just another stage.

Can I just add at this point that I bought Tonight (on cassette!) when it first came out? I really liked the song “Blue Jean” and was under the impression that the rest of the album would be pretty great. In my defense, I did get a lot of guilt-free enjoyment out of that album, even though it has really aged horribly.

One of the keys to Bowie’s universal appeal is probably his versatility and his ability to do something bold and experimental and put it on the same album as something catchy and commercial. Low was full of moody instrumental synthesizer pieces, but also contained the infectious “Sound and Vision.” Station to Station was a cocaine-fueled nightmare of excess (Bowie did so much coke during the making of that album that he honestly doesn’t remember anything about the recording experience) and the title track is an inexplicable ten-minute surrealistic artistic statement, but it’s followed by the irresistible funky single, “Golden Years” (a song he wrote for Elvis Presley to sing – unfortunately, the King declined).

Think for a minute about Bowie’s catalog, and how it makes for so many infectious, groundbreaking singles: “Space Oddity.” “Ziggy Stardust.” “Life on Mars.” “Changes.” “Suffragette City.” “Young Americans.” “Rebel Rebel.” “TVC15.” “Modern Love.” “Blue Jean.” ONE GUY wrote all those songs, and so many others.

Bowie invented space-folk. He created fictional personas and built concept albums around them. If he didn’t actually invent glam rock, he certainly brought it to the masses. He wrote, produced, and performed a whole bunch of great music with Iggy Pop. He wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople. He co-produced one of Lou Reed’s most acclaimed albums. He was a fashion icon. He made a covers album. He made an R&B album (dubbing it “plastic soul”) that featured unknown singer named Luther Vandross on backing vocals. He worked with both Trent Reznor and Brian Eno. He married a supermodel. He made an album that sold seven million copies and introduced the world to Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was Madonna’s first concert. He acted in films that were directed by everyone from Martin Scorsese to Nicolas Roeg to Christopher Nolan to Jim Henson. He recorded a Morrissey song. He co-wrote a song with John Lennon and recorded a duet with Mick Jagger.

Even if you don’t like Bowie’s music (and I honestly don’t understand how that’s humanly possible, but whatever), I think we all have a responsibility to be inspired by the man’s drive, individualism, and creativity. We will probably never see the likes of him again, but he certainly left us with a lot to ponder and enjoy.


“There’s a starman waiting in the sky.
He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky.
He’s told us not to blow it, ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.”



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books are burning


I have a notebook on my desk at work that I use to take notes during every meeting I attend. Last month, I attended a meeting that really didn’t require my presence, and as a result, my mind drifted and I began to write small capsule reviews of every XTC studio album (this was during the last few months of 2015, when I was going through a major XTC rediscovery period). What doesn’t help me at work could sure be useful as a blog entry. It also works if you’re considering diving into the XTC catalog as a newcomer. Here’s a verbatim transcription:


White Music – Highly melodic, fast, abrasive punk.

 GO 2 – Same style as White Music, definite drop in songwriting quality.

Drums & Wires – Change in personnel (Barry Andrews out, Dave Gregory in) makes for a huge leap in sophistication.

Black Sea – Much like its predecessor, and the songs are getting better.

English Settlement – Quality improvement continues, no longer writing for the stage.

Mummer – Continuing the style of “not writing for the road,” more acoustic but songs aren’t as good.

Big Express – Loud and obnoxious, horribly produced, a few good songs but mostly forgettable.

Skylarking – Beautiful, cohesive – everything Mummer wanted to be. Their masterpiece.

Oranges & Lemons – Psychedelic power pop. Invigorating. A bit noisy, but great songs and performances.

Nonsuch – Sort of an Oranges & Lemons Part 2, more sophisticated. Highly underrated.

Apple Venus – Gorgeous, great songs, unique arrangements, lots of orchestral bits.

Wasp Star – Compact, lots of guitar, great songs, back to basics.


So there you have it. A few takeaways:

I have a moderate dislike for Mummer and find it overrated.

Big Express is my least favorite album of theirs by a longshot. It just sucks.

I have no idea why I didn’t review either of the Dukes of Stratosphear albums. I think the meeting ended before I could get to them.

While I still feel that Skylarking is their best album, Drums & Wires and English Settlement have gone way up in my estimation and may eventually surpass Skylarking.

I pride myself on not once using the word “pastoral” in any of the reviews.


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12 bar blues



I don’t remember the exact moment I first heard Stone Temple Pilots, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that I was in the Navy, stationed in Keflavik, Iceland. That was my home from October 1990 to May 1994, so the timeframe checks out. I was working on the base radio/tv station. My friends and I were big Pearl Jam fans, still stoked at the beauty of Ten (“it’s alternative, but it’s kinda like classic rock! How’d they do that?”). STP were saddled with the unfortunate reputation of a sort of watered-down, more arena-friendly version of Pearl Jam and the rest of their Pacific Northwest contemporaries. This is unfortunate, because they wrote some great songs, and let’s face it – despite (or perhaps because of) the drug use and erratic behavior, Scott Weiland made for a hell of a rock star. The growl of a voice, the impenetrable lyrics almost bordering on comical (“And I feel / when the dogs begin to smell her” – WHATEVER, DUDE!), the elastic stage presence – all the appropriate boxes were checked.


I was never a huge STP fan, although several of their singles were undeniable earworms – “Plush” (especially the unplugged version), “Vasoline,” “Sour Girl,” and of course, “Interstate Love Song.” I don’t know what it is about the latter song that does it for me; it’s not terribly complex, it’s incapable of breaking any kind of ground – it’s just a guitar-heavy mid-tempo stomper that sounds great. True to its title, it works best when played in a fast car at loud volume. In fact, I remember when that song was big and I was living in Virginia Beach. I often drove alone during my daily commute to and from my job in Norfolk. I had the car to myself and “Interstate Love Song” was in heavy rotation on whatever alternative station I would be tuned in to when I grew tired of the mixtapes that were in the car. “You liiiiiiied…”


I guess what really hits home for me, personally, regarding Scott’s death is that he and I are part of the same generation. He was only two years older than me. He was part of the soundtrack of my young adulthood. I remember when Nirvana released “Nevermind” and I found out that Dave Grohl was my age. I think that was the first time that I was the same age as a rock star. Nowadays, a lot of them are old enough to be my kids. But that age proximity really makes me think – if I grew up in suburban D.C., maybe Dave and I could have been classmates. If I grew up in the vicinity of Weiland, maybe we would have been on the same school bus. It’s weird.


But it’s also horribly sad. When I was a kid, 48 seemed ancient. Nowadays, it’s right around the corner. And not old by any stretch. Scott had decades of life left in him. I won’t shame someone with drug dependency issues by dismissing his death as a foregone conclusion – nobody deserves to be marginalized that way. Rest in peace.


“In tribute, I recommend that the next time you get to karaoke, you fire up “Interstate Love Song” and just go to town; go ahead, ham it up, it’s funny, sorta. You don’t have to totally mean it for it to be meaningful. Scott Weiland taught us that, whether he knew it himself or not.” – Rob Harvilla, Deadspin


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Fuego: attempting maturity while donning a wingsuit


Regardless of what anyone thinks of Fuego, Phish’s most recent studio album (which was released in June 2014, but I just bought it this week, so give me a break already), the title track kicks things off in an undeniably Phishy manner. Most of the album has a mature, almost subdued nature, but that opening track has all the makings of a Phish classic. It has multiple segments, the music is knotty and complex, the lyrics are equally goofy and incomprehensible (“Freak out and throw stuff, world’s greatest dad / read a little book about Vlad the Impaler”) – it’s as if they were saying, “OK, we’ve shifted gears a bit overall, but just so you know, we’re still Phish.” And they are.

This is also the first Phish album in which all four members are either in their 50’s or pushing 50 (as of this writing, they’re all in their 50’s). At this point, the band has nothing to prove. They’ve been a band – with no personnel changes – for roughly 30 years and have been releasing albums for more than 25 of those years. Besides, studio albums aren’t exactly their bread and butter – like the Grateful Dead (a band to which Phish will be forever compared, like it or not), Phish release albums every once in a while when they’re not on a random tour, just to remind us that they still know their way around a studio.

Phish studio albums have been appearing with less and less frequency. There was a time when they would be coming out roughly every two years, but that eventually changed – their last three studio albums (including Fuego) were released in 2014, 2009 and 2004. It’s important to note that 2004’s Undermind was supposed to be their farewell album – they split up soon afterwards, but it didn’t take. As a result, the post-Undermind era – often referred to as Phish 3.0 – is marked by a certain maturity, both in their overall outlook, and – thankfully – their musical skill.

In the timeframe between Undermind and 2009’s “comeback” album, Joy, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Trey Anastasio underwent some serious personal health issues, pulled over in his home state of Vermont in 2006 for driving under the influence and drug possession, leading to a high-profile rehabilitation case. Since coming out of what appears to be an extremely successful rehab, Anastasio seems to have a new lease on life – it’s a state of being that seems to have transformed the band. Joy was a fitting title – it’s the sound of a band back together, but with a new attitude and sharper focus. Purists may claim that the band has lost their edge, but if recent Phish shows are any indication, this is patently untrue. Besides, Phish fans rarely gauge the band by their studio albums. They’re not what’s important (besides, the band’s studio work has plenty of edge – there’s just more of a focus on songwriting and less on 35-minute jams).

Phish ventured into some relatively untested waters while making what would eventually become Fuego (for a long time, the working title was Wingsuit). After debuting most of the songs during a Halloween 2013 concert in Atlantic City (including a few songs that didn’t make it onto the final album), the band recorded most of the album in Nashville with producer Bob Ezrin. While his name may not ring a bell, chances are you’ve heard an Ezrin-produced album, especially if you listen to rock music made in the 1970’s. He’s worked with everyone from Alice Cooper to Lou Reed to Kiss to Peter Gabriel to Pink Floyd. A great deal of the album has Ezrin’s fingerprints all over it. While I’m not an expert on every album he’s produced, I do happen to be quite familiar with Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, and there are a lot of similarities between that 1977 masterpiece and Fuego besides Ezrin’s name on the credits – the big, cavernous, full-band sound, gorgeous vocal harmonies, lots of dramatic piano (the album opens with what sounds like Phish keyboard player Page McConnell playing a full grand piano in an enormous concert hall), and a fully detailed sound. Seriously – this is an album that begs to be listened to at high volume on a really nice pair of headphones.

While the title track is hardly a surprising entry in the Phish canon, ensuing tracks continue the relatively even-keeled maturity they began nurturing on Joy. “The Line,” “Devotion to a Dream” and “Waiting All Night” sound surprisingly straightforward and heartfelt. “You’re clinging to the notion you’ll be fine.” “I’ve got faith in a fairytale.” Hard to believe these are lines from the same band who sang things like “Come stumble my mirth beaten worker / I’m Jezmund the family berserker.” Perhaps Phish have come to the conclusion that the studio albums are where the band house their navel-gazing and sober perspective, while the stage is where they continue to let loose. Who knows? There’s plenty of unhinged nuttiness on what I also feel is Fuego’s weakest track, “Wombat.” In the studio, it sounds like forced quirkiness, all self-referential with awkward references to Abe Vigoda (“…from the Fish TV show!”) and previous Phish songs like “Wilson.” Almost as if they had to fulfill their “weird quota.” But it doesn’t seem to hold up without an audience. I’m told that “Wombat” is a fun song in concert, and that’s good.

As usual, McConnell and bass player Mike Gordon are able to contribute some of their individual songs to this album – McConnell’s “Halfway to the Moon” is an extremely tuneful mid-tempo rocker boosted by a typically deft McConnell piano solo, and Gordon’s “555” is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the oddball bass player – idiosyncratic yet catchy and funky, this time aided by an irresistible horn section (I should add that horns are all over this album, and are exceptionally well-employed). “555” was co-written by Scott Murawski, Gordon’s long-time collaborator who worked with Mike most recently on his excellent 2014 solo album, Overstep. It’s entirely possible that “555” is an Overstep outtake, but it works better in the Phish realm. Gordon’s solo work tends to have a more acoustic, insular feel, and this song excels when Phish (and Ezrin) push it into the stratosphere. It’s easily one of Fuego’s most satisfying tracks.

While not a lot of Fuego tracks work as vehicles for Phish’s legendary live jamming, there are several instances where the compositions and their recordings reach an epic, anthemic quality. “Winterqueen” is a beautiful addition to the Phish canon, with Anastasio’s electric guitar lines and drummer Jon Fishman’s floor tom work interplaying nicely (it’s also one of the better Anastasio vocal performances in recent memory). The closing track (and one-time title track) “Wingsuit” closes the album nicely as a gentle ballad with some inspiring lead guitar that brings to mind Pink Floyd (a frequent Ezrin client – he did, in fact, produce The Wall, among other Floyd albums).

Although many Phish fans tend to be indifferent on the subject of the band’s studio work – the shows are where it’s at, and I get that – I feel that these albums serve as accurate barometer of the band’s headspace, if that makes sense. Bob Ezrin seems to have accurately captured the band in 2014, and that’s a good thing.

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Confessions of a Deadhead


Two days ago was the 20th anniversary of the passing of Jerry Garcia. It didn’t cross my mind until my friend Erik posted something about it (on Instagram, of all places). It made a lot of sense to hear it from this particular person – Erik was a younger cousin of Jeff Kudalis, my best friend from eighth grade, who died in a car accident in 1991 (almost four years after the last time I saw him). Jeff and I hung out a lot when I was deep into my Grateful Dead obsession, and Erik seems to have inherited a lot of his older cousin’s musical tastes (although I’m not entirely sure if Jeff was as into the Dead as I was…but I digress).

When Jerry died in 1995, I honestly didn’t give it much thought (or at least as much thought as it deserved), because I was deep in musical denial. Around the time I turned 16, I discovered a lot of music that was the antithesis of what I’d been into up to that point. Elvis Costello was in, Rush was out. I was loving and dissecting “King of America” while “A Farewell to Kings” gathered dust in a dark corner of my bedroom. This carried on into my adult life, well into my twenties and beyond.

It wasn’t until I was 34 when a promo copy of “The Power to Believe,” the latest album from King Crimson, fell into my hands during my part-time gig as a multimedia seller at the downtown Borders bookstore. I looked on this unrequested gift with mild bemusement. Even when I was a diehard prepubescent prog-rock geek, most of Crimson’s appeal eluded me. I remember being mildly fascinated with my brother’s copy of their 1981 “comeback” album, “Discipline” (mostly due to the appearance of Bill Bruford, the former Yes drummer and the man responsible for my desire to become a drummer myself), but I didn’t really dig into their catalog. This promo was an excuse for me to indulge in some sonic nostalgia. “Remember when I used to listen to this kind of stuff?” I asked myself. “Weird time signatures, geeked-out Berklee musical indulgences, lyrics designed to keep the ladies further away from you than a restraining order? I do. Hell, I’m a huge jazz fan now, this stuff is practically cut from the same cloth.” I took it home, listened to it and loved every note. Then I bought about six or seven more King Crimson CDs.

Then a weird thing happened. I started buying a lot of other stuff I gave up on many years ago. Rush reissues. Yes reissues. Hell, I even picked up a deluxe edition of ELP’s “Brain Salad Surgery” at a going-out-of-business sale at the Harvard Square Tower Records (if you’re attempting to reconnect with your prog rock roots without the use of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, you’re not trying hard enough). I finally realized, into my thirties, that music is music and I’m not out to impress anyone. I mean, I still listen to Elvis Costello, the Jam, Graham Parker, the Smiths, all that good stuff that took me to a different level back in 1985. But I learned that it can all coexist, and frankly, I don’t care who knows it.

Where was I? Oh, right. Jerry.

In the fall of 1981, I was entering the 7th grade, in a Catholic grammar school in Nashua, New Hampshire. One of my classmates was an affable guy named Dave Guertin. Like me, Dave listened to a lot of music, and like me, it was passed on to him by way of his older brother. One day, Dave rather casually asked me if I liked the Grateful Dead. I admitted to him that I really didn’t know much of their music. To be honest, of the few Dead songs I knew at the time, the one I knew the most was “Alabama Getaway,” the tepid single from “Go To Heaven,” their latest studio album at the time, and thus the one that got the most recent airplay on those unimaginatively programmed classic rock stations I listened to so much back then. I never really had much of a desire to discover the Dead. I wasn’t into hippie stuff. I liked the Who, Rush, Genesis (when they were still mildly interesting), Queen (before synthesizers effectively broke them); my Frank Zappa obsession was right around the corner. But Dave was a nice guy, so I gave it a shot. I’m pretty sure that my introduction to the Dead was a purchase of “Skeletons From the Closet,” a somewhat uneven compilation that sold relatively well, probably due to the fact that it was often used as a Grateful Dead primer for the uninitiated (like me!).

“Skeletons” isn’t the perfect introduction to the Dead, but it worked. It had the stuff everyone knew (“Truckin,’” “Casey Jones”), some oddly comforting folkie stuff (“Uncle John’s Band,” “Friend of the Devil”), guitar-heavy live tracks (“Turn On Your Lovelight,” “One More Saturday Night”), some downright strange psychedelic stuff (“Rosemary”) and some left-field kookiness (the mariachi-spiked “Mexicali Blues,” an odd inclusion, considering it’s technically a Bob Weir solo track). That did it. Soon, I was hanging out with Dave at his house, listening to his brother’s record collection. Dave was one of the few people I knew who had a swimming pool (a nice in-ground one), and I have distinct memories of playing Marco Polo while “Shakedown Street” wafted from the indoor speakers. I also attempted to infuse some of my own musical tastes to the proceedings – I remember playing my copy of Genesis’ “Selling England by the Pound” in the Guertin dining room while Dave and I played yet another round of the Dark Tower board game.

In my junior high school musical world, the Dead were an outlier – they weren’t really like anything else I was listening to. The closest comparison you could make would be Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and I only really listened to them because my older sisters did, and it was playing in the house when we all lived together (I should point out that Jerry  played pedal steel on CSNY’s “Teach Your Children,” making that my earliest connection to the Dead by far).  The Dead’s live recordings seemed to be a connection to some of the live music I was into at the time in that it entailed seemingly endless jamming. A lot of the music I was listening to back then was tightly structured, but that didn’t stop it from veering off into extended jams and the obligatory drum solo. It seemed like everyone I listened to back then recorded stopgap live albums after a certain number of studio albums, and they all  had to include drum solos. I think it was the law.

The Dead were also the first band I can recall that I discovered prior to my brother discovering them. It was sort of a ritual in our household that Gary would bring a record home, crank it up time and time again, and it would eventually find its way into my own (lesser) bedroom turntable. But the Dead was my discovery, damn it. When he brought home a copy of “Dead Set,” the 1981 live album, I felt a sense of triumph, and perhaps he felt a sense of defeat in being bested by his younger sibling. I don’t really know – we didn’t talk to each other much back then.

Dirty stinking hippies. What was it about this band that I loved so much? Well, besides the instrumental interplay, I really dug the fact that they had two drummers. Drummers often get the raw deal, and as a drummer (even back then), I like to see them get justice. The Dead started out with just one (Bill Kreutzmann), but soon recruited a second (Mickey Hart), and suddenly drums were encroaching on this band and no longer reduced to an afterthought. But the other guys were good, too: Bob Weir was a fierce, raw, vocalist and a steady rhythm guitarist – if you feel like Jerry’s de facto position as the band’s leader is unjust, check out the Netflix documentary on Weir, “The Other One.” While Weir was the feral rock guy, Jerry’s elastic leads and gentle vocals helped bring some balance. Two sides of the same coin. I loved that dynamic. And the revolving door of keyboard players: Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, a bunch of other guys – wasn’t Bruce Hornsby in the band for a hot second? That era wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it’s a testament to the band’s durability that they can run through so many of those guys and still stay together and keep a strong fan base.

And then there’s Phil. Phil Lesh is a mighty musician, and probably the most musically erudite of the Dead’s roster – a multi-instrumentalist who studied classical music in college – Phil’s bass playing is highly reminiscent of the recently deceased Chris Squire. His bass playing doesn’t just provide the requisite “bottom end” – it creates its own separate melody lines, chunky notes that rise above the rhythm section and are instantly recognizable.

The Dead wrote music in a somewhat unique fashion – they eventually abandoned lyric writing in favor of farming it out to a couple of guys who were just plain better at it. For the most part, Robert Hunter wrote the words to Jerry’s music, and John Barlow did the same for Bob’s. It’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but that’s basically it. In the rock music realm, lyrics are too often raised to the level of “poetry,” and it usually doesn’t apply, but here it’s justified. Hunter and Barlow were storytellers, and the Dead’s unique blend of folk, country, blues and psychedelia provided the perfect accompaniment to this – this time, without the condescending quotes – poetry. And while we’re on the subject of poetry – while their occasional collaborations were rickety at best, comparing the Dead to Bob Dylan is not really that far off the mark. They both have roots in folk and blues but have often transcended those simpler genres in favor of cables, amplifiers and effects pedals. I discovered Dylan’s music in the Summer of 1984 and never looked back, and I’m positive that the Grateful Dead laid the essential groundwork for me to make that discovery.

Like the bands I mentioned earlier, I rediscovered the Dead several years ago, thanks to a very well-executed catalog re-mastering, and with my renewed interest in vinyl, I’ve been able to dust off that 33-year old copy of “Skeletons in the Closet” (among other titles) and haven’t really annoyed my wife and son too much just yet.

Jerry, I realize that this is 20 years too late, but thanks for the music.

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Come On/Let’s Go: Paul Weller Brings His Ever Changing Moods to a Sold-Out Boston Crowd


Paul Weller at the Paradise Rock Club, June 13, 2015

In 1981, journalist Kurt Loder interviewed Keith Richards during Rolling Stones tour rehearsals. After the interview, Richards wandered over to a piano and began playing. Loder noted: “(Keith) began noodling around in the rolling, bluesy mode that seemed to fall somewhere between the style of Memphis Slim and Keith’s old favorite, Johnnie Johnson. Richards’ playing had a buoyant stride to it, transparently subtle – the music of a man tapped into the source.”

I’ve always loved that description, particularly the the last few words: “a man tapped into the source.” Through that description, you can imagine a musician – someone who has spent the better part of his life studying, learning, and loving his art – obeying his muse to the extent where it can be summoned at any given moment; plugging into it. Our best artists can do that, and I know that Paul Weller, a 57-year-old musician who’s been playing professionally since he was a teenager, has that ability. I’ve seen it onstage. I’ve heard it in his recorded works with the 1970s punk trio the Jam, the jazz/dance/pop combo the Style Council, and – perhaps more potently – in the dozen solo albums he’s made in the last 23 years.

Weller’s latest album, the brilliant “Saturns Pattern” (released last month), continues an experimental stretch he’s been indulging in for the past few albums. It’s the sound of a restless artist who isn’t scared to move beyond what’s expected of him, with results that are wild, spacey, soothing, noisy, and catchy – often within the same song. Over the weekend, he wrapped up a brief North American tour (the only kind of North American tour he ever does, as he enjoys a cult following on these shores and godlike status in his native England) in support of the new album, and Bostonians were lucky to be included on this brief Stateside sojourn, as he shook the floorboards of the Paradise Rock Club on June 13 (West Coast fans, cheer up: he’s hitting your neck of the woods in October).

After settling in with a somewhat regular crew of touring musicians for several years, Paul cleared the decks a few years ago and overhauled his band. Only guitarist Steve Cradock remains from the 90’s. Filling out the lineup was Andy Lewis on bass, Andy Crofts on keyboards, Steve Pilgrim on drums and Ben Gordelier on percussion. Paul mostly stuck with guitar, but – as he’s been doing for years – sat behind a keyboard on a handful of songs.

Hitting the stage (on time, which is so un-rock’n’roll), a beaming Weller and his band tore into the new album’s opening track, “White Sky,” a loud, bluesy stomper with a combination of heaviness and catchiness that sounds like the best song the Black Keys never wrote. From there, Paul and his band were off on a zigzag journey through the Weller (mostly solo era) songbook, playing a combination of high-energy rockers (“Come On/Let’s Go,” the new Stooges soundalike “Long Time,” the anthemic “Changingman”), midtempo earworms (the fuzzy, psychedelic “When You’re Garden’s Overgrown,” the soulful “Broken Stones”), and…well, as brilliant as Weller can be with a ballad, this show was largely devoid of “slow jams,” although the gorgeous “Empty Ring” fit the bill nicely.

As expected, the sold-out crowd was primarily of the middle-aged variety, likely holdovers from the Jam era, and more than a few expatriate Brits (a British couple standing in front of us were following Paul around the U.S. on this tour, like Britpop Deadheads). Six of the show’s 24 songs were from the new album, and despite a gradual stylistic shift in Weller’s music over the past years, new and old songs meshed extremely well.

Weller seemed pleased and invigorated with the relatively new band, often leaning over to Crofts’ bank of keyboards and letting out a blistering solo (an unthinkable scenario in his compact, “three chords and the truth” Jam days), trading licks with Cradock, and twice (TWICE!) giving Pilgrim the space to indulge in a brief drum solo. In fact, he seemed absolutely ecstatic while his 1997 single “Friday Street” rolled along and the crowd sang every word.

The show’s setlist seemed to have something for everyone, as album tracks were included alongside songs only available as singles (the b-side “The Olde Original” and last year’s Record Store Day exclusive, “Brand New Toy”). Weller didn’t seem to feel a need to “play the hits.” Anything was fair game, and the band handled it all deftly.

If anyone was bothered by the lack of songs from Weller’s old bands, they didn’t seem to show it, and while he did draw from that well, he waited until the third(!) encore for those nuggets. The Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods” (Weller’s only U.S. pop chart hit, by the way) sounded absolutely flawless, as if it were 1984 all over again. Gordelier’s percussion kept the song chugging along and Weller’s voice sounded better than ever. Somewhat predictably – not that anyone was complaining – the show ended with the Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” that pitch-perfect Motown tribute. Banging on a tambourine, Weller didn’t even sing the chorus, as the crowd took care of that for him.

After more than 30 years as a fan of this man’s work – through two different bands and a solo career as strong as ever – I still don’t understand why Paul Weller remains merely a cult artist on American soil. But I shouldn’t complain – this level of popularity is what allows me to be standing a mere few feet away from him, instead of suffering through nosebleed seats at TD Garden.

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