I’m no schoolboy but I know what I like

On the face of it, it really makes no sense.

How is it that a 76-year-old man can successfully do what amounts to an aggressive 90aerobics workout while leading his band of septugenarians through a kickass two-hour performance of classic rock and roll?

I saw it, along with 60,000 other Rolling Stones devotees at the Rose Bowl last week, but I wasn’t quite believing what I was seeing.

(Let’s get my age-related joke out of the way right here:  At the merchandise booths before the show, alongside the tongue-and-lips t-shirts and hoodies, I was almost expecting there would be Rolling Stones walkers and canes for sale.  Boom!  I’ll be here all week…)

Seriously, though, if I were Mick Jagger’s doctor, I’m not so sure I would have given him the green light, following heart surgery only three months earlier, to run relentlessly across the stage like the 25-year-old he isn’t anymore.  Then again, Jagger is and has always been his own man, and I don’t imagine he needs anyone’s permission to do whatever he wants, even if it’s just to go down to the Chelsea Drug Store to get a prescription filled.  Clearly, he loves to perform, he wants to perform, and he is still very good at it, so he WILL perform, whether it’s as a street fighting man, a man of wealth and taste, or as a man stuck between a rock and a hard place.

As for his Glimmer Twin, the indestructible human specimen called Keith Richards, he too has the rock and roll gene buried deep in his DNA, but he appeared far less enthusiastic about the need to continue going through his paces on stage.  He was smiling now and then, and just might have been enjoying himself, as he chipped in some p1090321-e1566672054326monster guitar chords just when you thought he might doze off.  But for much of the night, he seemed bored and uncaring, and more than happy to turn over most of the guitar duties to his younger teammate, the 71-year-old Ronnie Wood.

And wow, what a 180-degree difference!  I went home from the show with a revived respect for Wood’s contributions to this band.  He did almost all of the heavy lifting, from some inspired slide guitar playing to quicksilver lead guitar runs, all the while demonstrating an impish playfulness in the way he carried out his assignments.  Not to mention, he’s a lot easier on the eyes than Richards, who looks these days as if he’s wearing a rubber mask that was left out in the sun too long.

Drummer Charlie Watts, meanwhile, was… well, critic Chris Willman from Variety put it beautifully:  “He’s still our darling, sitting at a minimalist kit and moving even more minimally with his casual jazz grip, looking like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”  The 78-year-old guy didn’t appear to even break a sweat as he unfailingly laid down the beat for 20 Stones classics for more than two hours.  Me, I get winded going up a few flights of stairs.

At a stadium show like this one, most people are so far from the stage that they can barely see the performers, and if not for the four truly astounding visual screens that hung behind the stage, they wouldn’t know for sure it was the actual Rolling Stones and not some paid actors.  I beat-opener-stage-bb5-2019-billboard-1500don’t know who the art director is who was responsible for the spectacular graphics and visual content of these displays, but if you ask me, he should be paid as much as Jagger and Company.  The audience (unless you were those fortunate few in the first 30-40 rows) spent the entire evening watching the concert via the screens, and believe it or not, this was not a bad thing.  Unlike the simplistic, average-quality visuals I’ve been forced to watch at many other stadium shows, these were state-of-the-art, presenting the four featured players in as favorable a light as you could possibly imagine.

The camera people didn’t neglect the other musicians who added significant parts to The Stones’ live stage presentation.  Darryl Jones, who has been handling the bass guitar parts in the touring band since original member Bill Wyman’s departure in 1994, had several moments in the spotlight, most notably as he carried the day on an extended rendition of “Miss You.”  Similarly, veteran keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has toured with not only the Stones but also The Allman Brothers for decades now, offered some integral piano work on crowd-pleasing selections like “She’s a Rainbow” and the anthemic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Most photogenic, though, was 37-year-old Sasha Allen, making her debut appearance in place of long-time touring vocalist Lisa Fischer to belt out backing vocals and, most significantly, the Merry Clayton vocal solo during “Gimme Shelter,” which still sounds as threatening and chilling as the original did 50 years ago.

Those uber-professional screens, by the way, proved to be far better stage accoutrements maxresdefault-28-560x416than the silly cherry pickers and inflatable penises The Stones previously trotted out as concert spectacles.  I had been a witness to both of these laughable visual props at the 1981 “Tattoo You” arena tour and the 1989 “Steel Wheels” stadium tour, respectively, and I can tell you I would have much preferred these quality screen shots of the band members doing their thing.

While the visual presentation is always important (why else go to a concert in the first place?), equally crucial is the song list the band decides to perform.  Most classic rock bands still out there on the road have chosen to play it safe by limiting themselves to the hits everyone supposedly came to hear, and in that regard, The Stones did indeed stick to the tried-and-true standards.

I look at the Stones’ music in four distinct eras.  First there’s the early years (1963-1967), from their humble beginnings covering old blues tunes through their first attempts at writing their own songs, some of which become huge Top 40 hits in the UK and the US alike.  From that period, they offered three tunes at the Rose Bowl show:  the vaguely menacing “Paint it Black,” the flower-power curiosity “She’s a Rainbow” and the most durable war horse of their whole catalog, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Then, there’s the glory years, from their “Beggar’s Banquet” LP in 1968 through “Exile on Main Street” in 1972.  This is when The Stones were truly “the greatest rock and roll band in the world,” especially in the studio, writing and recording some of the most amazing music in rock history.  This period was, as expected, broadly represented at the Pasadena show:  “Street Fighting Man,” “Sympathy For the Devil,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter,” “You Got the Silver,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” “Midnight Rambler,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Brown Sugar,” “Dead Flowers,” “Sweet Virginia” and “Tumbling Dice.”

It was during “Midnight Rambler” that Jagger whipped out his harmonica and helped make that song the winner of my “best moment of the evening” contest, although it won by only a fraction over a mesmerizing, hypnotic “Sympathy for the Devil.”

desert-trip-2016-003The third era of Stones music I’ll describe as the erratic years, when the group’s records meandered between average ambivalence (“Goat’s Head Soup,” “Black and Blue”) and meaty masterpieces (“Some Girls,” “Tattoo You”), and this wild swing in quality was a frustrating time for Stones fans.  From this period (1973-1986), last week’s show included only three selections:  The not-to-be-denied disco stomp “Miss You,” Richards’ defiant “Before They Make Me Run” and their final #1 hit single, 1981’s “Start Me Up.”

The fourth era, if you can even call it an era, is everything from 1989 to the present.  It’s a pretty lame 30-year stretch that included just four LPs, and only one of those (“Steel Wheels”) was anywhere close to the high standards they’d laid down in their best days.  Not surprisingly, we heard only one track from this period, the so-so “You Got Me Rocking.”  (Wouldn’t “A Rock and a Hard Place” have been a better choice?)

When you analyze the setlist in this way, it’s clear to see that The Rolling Stones in 2019 choose to present themselves pretty much as The Rolling Stones of 1969 or so, concentrating on the finest songs they ever wrote.  And why not?  I mean, hey, if they’re going to continue to tour well into their 70s, they might as well put their best cards on the table.  The audience, largely made up of longtime fans also in their grey-haired years, wants to hear the songs they know and love best.

Me, I’m a rock writer and veteran rock-concert attendee, and I would’ve frankly preferred to hear a few more of the less obvious choices. I guess they did go out on a limb when they moved down the catwalk to sit down and try their hand at “unplugged” tunes like “Sweet Virginia” and “Dead Flowers.”  But I don’t know, it seems to me they could have taken a chance or two with the set list during the meat of the program. Maybe drop “Honky Tony Woman” and make room for “Monkey Man” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.”  Or even go deep and offer up “Respectable,” or “Too Much Blood,” or “Slave.”

images-59Understand, I’m not complaining.  It was fun to hear Jagger make references to L.A. landmarks and neighborhoods like “Thursday night’s turtle races at Brennan’s” (in Marina Del Rey), or unsuccessfully searching for their star on Hollywood Boulevard (inexplicably, there isn’t one, guys), or being unable to get a reservation at Spago’s (it’s been closed since 2001).  And we were all reminded of our mortality when he said it has been 55 years since The Stones’ first Los Angeles concert, and 25 years since they’d last played the Rose Bowl.

I was thoroughly entertained, and who knows if these guys will still have enough in the tank to show up in town again four or five years from now for another go round.  If so, I suspect I’ll be here, “just waitin’ on a friend.”

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The Spotify playlist below offers the songs from the August 22nd Rose Bowl show in the order they were played, followed by a few other gems from their catalog I would have loved to have heard…

 

 

 

Our good memories seem like yesterday

People of my generation are always talking about how the music “back in our day” was so much better than today’s music.  I remember my father telling me the same thing, how the tunes of the ’30s and ’40s were infinitely better than anything on the radio in the ’60s and ’70s.

The-Playlist-e1484852844413To some extent, we are all creatures of our own times.  The people we knew, the experiences we had, and definitely the music we listened to when we were in our teens and ’20s made permanent impressions on us.

I’m not going to make value judgments about which era had the best music.  I wouldn’t dare.  Hey, EVERY era had unmitigated crap amongst superb classics, so it depends which songs, albums and artists we’re talking about in any given year.

But I know this:  My era was packed with tunes that are viewed as “lost classics” — really great songs that weren’t exactly chart toppers but are well worthy of your time to discover, or re-discover.  I have assembled another dozen songs from 1970 or thereabouts that have been lost between the cracks in the years since.  If you like what you hear here, and I’m betting that you will, well, you’re welcome!

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“Pure and Easy,” The Who, 1971

220px-The_who_odds_and_sodsPete Townshend struggled mightily to come up with a suitable followup to The Who’s monumental rock opera “Tommy.”  His concept, entitled “Lifehouse,” was to be a multi-media project focusing on the relationship between an artist and his audience, centered around the idea of one perfect, universal note symbolizing human unity.  Townshend damn near had a nervous breakdown over the frustrations encountered in bringing the thing to fruition, which caused him to abandon “Lifehouse” and instead release most of its music as a single album.  That album, “Who’s Next,” is often regarded as The Who’s finest, but curiously, it’s missing “Pure and Easy,” the excellent tune that best defined the project for which it was written.  That outstanding track didn’t appear until the 1974 compilation album “Odds & Sods.”

“Apeman,” The Kinks, 1970

The_kinks_lola_versus_powerman_albumComing during a transitional phase in The Kinks’ career arc, “Lola Versus Powerman and the Money-go-round, Part One” was described by one critic as “a wildly unfocused but nevertheless dazzling tour de force, featuring some of Ray Davies’ strongest songs.”  Certainly, “Lola” was an unqualified chart success for the band, even if Davies (and many others) grew to hate it over the years.  The better tune from the LP, in my view as well as Davies’, is “Apeman,” just as whimsical and sing-songy as “Lola” but far more musically engaging.  It reached #5 in the UK but stiffed at #45 in the US, qualifying it as a candidate for this “lost classics” playlist.

“I’ll Be Creepin’,” Free, 1969

Free_albumcoverThe smoldering, powerful voice of Paul Rodgers was the key element in making Bad Company such a hard rock sensation in the 1970s, but before that, Rodgers was the vocal foundation of the great, underappreciated British band Free, known foremost for the Top Five rock classic “All Right Now.”  Free assembled in 1968 and released their first LP when all four members were barely 18, cranking out a few blues rock standards and several originals by Rodgers and guitarist Andy Fraser.  The 1969 second album “Free” failed to make the US charts but was popular among cult fans, especially the mesmerizing opener “I’ll Be Creepin’,” which has all the elements that sold millions the next year on “All Right Now.”

“Then,” Yes, 1970

Unknown-57Years before they filled arenas and topped the charts, Yes was another struggling British progressive rock band, rehearsing daily and learning their chops while playing cover songs in small club gigs.  Atlantic Records took notice and signed them in 1969, and although their first LP (“Yes”) failed to chart anywhere, their follow-up, “Time and a Word,” did modestly well in England, reaching #45, even though they were still unknowns in the US.  The album consisted mostly of Jon Anderson originals, one of which, “Then,” has always appealed to me.  The track features organ and guitar work by Tony Kaye and Peter Banks, respectively, both of whom were replaced by the time of their 1971 breakthrough LP, “Fragile.”  Anderson’s tenor voice is, as on nearly every Yes song, front and center on the recording.

“Inside,” Jethro Tull, 1970

220px-JethroTull-albums-benefitAs the precursor to the legendary “Aqualung” album, “Benefit” is often neglected in discussions of Jethro Tull’s music, and when it is mentioned, talk centers on the hard rock tunes that dominate the proceedings (“To Cry You a Song,” “With You There to Help Me”).  One of Ian Anderson’s most delightful acoustic numbers is “Inside,” which features the ever-present flute, an irresistible uptempo beat, and some on-point lyrics about life and the need for a positive outlook (“I’m sitting on the corner feeling glad, got no money coming in, but I can’t be sad, that was the best cup of coffee I ever had, and I won’t worry ’bout a thing because we’ve got it made here on the inside, outside’s so far away…”)

“Sweet Jane,” Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, 1970

LoadedalbumReed’s preferred version of this classic tune came on The Velvet Underground’s fourth LP, “Loaded,” marked by a pretty 15-second melodic intro, and the uptempo arrangement later copied and made more famous in Mott the Hoople’s 1972 recording of it.  Reed continued performing “Sweet Jane” throughout his solo years, and there’s a fabulous eight-minute live version on the 1974 live LP “Rock ‘n Roll Animal.” In the late 1980s, the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies revived Reed’s slow-tempo version in their rendition  that was a popular single in Canada and on modern rock stations here.  But The Velvet Underground’s original is still a gas to hear.

“Art of Dying,” George Harrison, 1970

220px-All_Things_Must_Pass_1970_coverPeople were taken aback when Harrison’s solo debut was a double album (actual a triple, but the third was just a bunch of random jams), but it shouldn’t have been that surprising.  With two brilliant egomaniacs running the show in The Beatles, Harrison’s songs were often pushed aside, which meant he had a lot of material sitting on the shelf when “All Things Must Pass” was being assembled.  One was “Art of Dying,” whose lyrics date to 1966 when Harrison was first getting into Eastern teachings and spiritual enlightenment.  Phil Spector gave this track his trademark “wall of sound” production, with lots of reverb and layers of instruments, and Eric Clapton adding some dazzling guitar fills.  It should’ve been a big radio tune but is instead a lost classic.

“Every Night,” Paul McCartney, 1970

McCartney1970albumcoverMcCartney’s solo debut album was on the receiving end of a lot of bad vibes, arriving as it did at the time Paul made the official announcement of The Beatles’ breakup (although they’d technically split at least six months earlier).  McCartney played all the instruments, and wrote and recorded the whole album at home on a 4-track recorder, and to many people, that made it sound amateurish.  “Maybe I’m Amazed” got all the airplay because it was arranged to sound like it could’ve come from “Abbey Road.” But there are some really great nuggets to be found here as well, including “That Would Be Something,” “Man We Was Lonely,” and two songs rejected by The Beatles, “Junk” and “Teddy Boy.”  My favorite track is “Every Night,” with its great melody and potent lyrics about the depression McCartney was going through following the disintegration of The Beatles.

“Come Running,” Van Morrison, 1970

220px-VanMorrisonMoondanceOne of my favorite records of 1970 has to be “Moondance,” Morrison’s third album in a career that includes forty studio releases over 50 years.  It’s one of his most likable LPs, chock full of easygoing melodies and romantic lyrics.  I never understood why the title cut wasn’t released as a single — it has certainly become one of his best known tunes in the years since.  Instead, the choice for the single was “Come Running,” which barely made the US Top 40.  It’s a catchy little shuffle featuring piano and sax and Morrison’s immediately identifiable vocals, all the ingredients that turned up the following year on his Top Ten hit “Domino.”

“Sour Suite,” The Guess Who, 1971

220px-So_Long_Bannatyne_by_The_Guess_WhoFollowing Randy Bachman’s departure from The Guess Who in 1970, singer/keyboardist Burton Cummings assumed control of the band’s direction, and by the time of the 1971 LP “So Long Bannatyne,” we started hearing more piano-based tracks like “Sour Suite” that veered from the band’s straightforward hit-single formula.  This mellow, melancholy piece didn’t make it higher than #50 on the US singles chart, although it reached #12 in their native Canada, and many diehard fans pick it as one of their favorites in the group’s catalog.  The lyric “It’s just like 46201” refers to an Indianapolis zip code, where Cummings wrote the song while in a glum mood one morning after an off night performing there.

“Come Down in Time,” Elton John, 1970

71BalaeIjEL._SY355_Out of nearly 50 studio albums released in Sir Elton’s lengthy career, critics have often picked “Tumbleweed Connection” as the cream of the crop, and I’m inclined to agree with them.  Lyricist Bernie Taupin had become fascinated with tales of the American Wild West, and most of the tunes that appeared on “Tumbleweed” reflected that interest.  “Come Down in Time,” however, was more of a timeless ballad that might’ve appeared on other albums from that period.  With delicate use of harp, oboe and strings, producer Gus Dudgeon made it one of the LP’s most memorable songs, carried, of course, by John’s tender voice.

“Look at You, Look at Me,” Dave Mason, 1970

Alone-togetherIn my view, Mason never achieved the success he should have.  He’s a gifted songwriter, guitarist and singer, but he seemed to run into roadblocks along his path, some of them due to his own quirky stubbornness.  He could’ve been a key component of Traffic, but he kept leaving and coming back, feuding often with leader Steve Winwood.  Strangely, Mason’s solo albums were only half-heartedly promoted by the various labels who released them.  His 1970 debut “Alone Together” is one of the best LPs of that era, and it reached #22 on the album charts, but it coulda-shoulda been a chart topper.  You’ll find great songs throughout (“Only You Know and I Know,” “World in Changes,” “Sad and Deep as You”), but the real highlight is the 7-minute closer, “Look at You, Look at Me,” with Mason’s stellar guitar work, especially on the extended fadeout.

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