Let your voice ring back my memories

When I go deep diving for “lost classics” in my collection of 1,800 vinyl albums and CDs, I often lean more toward the uptempo rock music I favored much of the time.  Just as important to me, though, were the acoustic strains of the early ’70s singer-songwriter era, a time when I was learning to play guitar so I could perform them at parties and school variety shows.

Popular-Guitar-Chord-SongsI certainly didn’t learn how to play all of them, but the songs of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and others will always have a soft spot in my heart.  They wrote such lovely melodies and piercing lyrics that speak so tenderly of the human condition we all must navigate.

For this week’s post on the blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on songs from that genre and that period.  The forgotten deep tracks from these artists’ albums were great then and are just as mesmerizing now as I’m helping you rediscover them.  Crank up the Spotify playlist and pay attention as these tunes gently wash over you.

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“One Man Parade,” James Taylor, 1972

536d9e4fe675fabdea3ff2be2348bc23.800x800x1Both his “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” albums had been recorded in L.A. studios, but for his next effort, “One Man Dog,” he decided to record in his new homemade studio in a barn next to his homemade house on Martha’s Vineyard.  He had written a dozen or so short songs, intending to tie them together in an “Abbey Road”-like manner, and the result was compelling, but he also had a couple of standard-length tunes that might get Top 40 radio play.  Sure enough, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” reached #12 on the charts, but the follow-up single, “One Man Parade,” inexplicably died on the vine at #67.  It’s one of Taylor’s most carefree tunes, with a charming melody and lyrics about how his dog is exactly the kind of friend he’s looking for — loyal, easygoing, enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

“To Each His Own,” America, 1972

AmericaHomecomingDewey Bunnell, Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley comprised America, a talented trio of singer-songwriters who had great success on the charts in the early ’70s — “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” “Sister Golden Hair.”  The albums these songs came from were chock full of more acoustic melodies and CSN-like harmonies that have pretty much been forgotten over the years.  On their second LP “Homecoming,” you can find the amazing John Martin song “Head and Heart” and Peek’s minor hit “California Revisited” and country-inflected “Don’t Cross the River,” but my favorite is the simple melody of “To Each His Own,” Beckley’s song of a romance that is ending even though the love endures.

“The Lonely One,” Dave Mason, 1973

it-s-like-you-never-left-albums-photo-u1As one of the founders of the British folk-jazz-rock group Traffic, Mason was quickly overshadowed by Steve Winwood and decided to head out on his own instead.  His solo debut LP “Alone Together” is considered one of the finer albums of 1970, but Mason found himself mired in a struggle with his foundering label Blue Thumb, losing career momentum in the process.  When he signed with Columbia and released “It’s Like You Never Left” in 1973, he began a run of six successful albums and nearly non-stop touring throughout the ’70s, peaking with the platinum “Let It Flow” LP and Top Ten single “We Just Disagree” in 1977.  At least a dozen Mason tracks qualify as lost classics, and this go-around, I’ve picked the acoustic gem “The Lonely One” from the 1973 album.  Dig Stevie Wonder’s excellent harmonica here!

“Barangrill,” Joni Mitchell, 1972

image_10135e2c-0d61-4e71-8787-061f9ee8e993In every discussion of Mitchell’s repertoire, everyone focuses on her confessional masterpiece “Blue” from 1971 or her pop-jazz pinnacle “Court and Spark” from 1974.  Me, I’ve always been partial to the album in between these two, 1972’s “For the Roses,” mostly because I discovered it during an emotional time when I was able to absorb her music non-stop through headphones.  Again, I could have selected any of nine of the 12 tunes on this amazing record (“Banquet,” “For the Roses,” “See You Sometime”), but I was moved to go with “Barangrill,” a perceptive study of the regulars and employees at the nation’s truck-stop diners.

“Where Do the Children Play?”, Cat Stevens, 1970

51yt4ogh5wL._SX466_So many of my generation were instantly captivated by the music of Cat Stevens when his “Tea for the Tillerman” album arrived in late 1970, sparked by the hit single “Wild World.”  Stevens (who later embraced Islam and changed his name to Yusef) had released three earlier albums that were ignored in the U.S., but that changed in a hurry with “Tillerman.”  “Father and Son” emerged as an underground favorite, and pretty much every song here qualifies as a lost classic.  My candidate would have to be “Where Do the Children Play?”, one of the first songs I remember hearing that decried the spoiling of the planet and our environment.

“One Of These Things First,” Nick Drake, 1971

220px-Bryter_LayterDrake’s tragic story of sublime talent tortured by stage fright and clinical depression wasn’t well known during his short life, which ended in suicide in 1974.  He made just three albums, all critically acclaimed, but he wasn’t appreciated more deeply until the new millennium.  Like many folks, I discovered Drake from the use of his song “Pink Moon” in a TV commercial ten years ago, and consequently picked up a wonderful anthology CD featuring a robust cross-section of his repertoire.  The song that grabbed me instantly, originally found on his “Bryter Later” album, is “One of These Things First,” a beautiful piano-and-guitar melody carried by Drake’s feather-light voice.  If you’re not familiar with Drake’s work, here’s a great place to start.

“Peace Like a River,” Paul Simon, 1972

R-3055486-1372780911-7597.jpegAs a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel, I was very disappointed when Simon chose to give his partner the heave-ho and go solo following the stratospheric success of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  Their friendship endured in an on-again-off-again way, but Simon was far more interested in exploring the rhythms and musical textures of other lands than Garfunkel was.  The reggae feel of “Mother and Child Reunion” and the peppy Latino beat of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” are the two most notable examples to be found on the “Paul Simon” solo debut LP.  Buried on side 2 is “Peace Like a River,” which sounded to me like the album track that would have fit quite nicely on any S&G album.

“Minstrel Of the Dawn,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1970

R-1361049-1285558009.jpegThe acoustic guitar work, strong vocals and delightful songwriting that have marked Lightfoot’s lengthy career as a recording artist were at their most simple and direct on his breakthrough LP, “If You Could Read My Mind.”  That album’s title tune reached #5 and made a fan out of me, but there were another 4-5 songs on the LP that I found just as engaging.  One is “Minstrel of the Dawn,” a lovely piece that describes the life of a traveling troubadour, offering a lively string arrangement that augments Lightfoot’s dextrous finger-picking and strong baritone vocals.

“Johnny’s Garden,” Manassas, 1972

Manassas-by-Stephen-StillsCritics called Stephen Stills’ band’s double LP “a sprawling masterpiece,” with an impressive diversity of rock, folk, country, blues, Latin and bluegrass music.  Side 3 of “Manassas” focuses on folk and folk rock, and the centerpiece is the lost classic “Johnny’s Garden,” written by Stills in honor of the gardener who tended to the extensive grounds at the English manor Stills once owned.  The song is perhaps the simplest on the album, with an arrangement limited to Stills’ guitar, Fuzzy Samuels’ bass and some light drums from Dallas Taylor.  It’s one of Stills’ most engaging songs, harking back to the tunes he was writing when with Crosby, Nash and Young.

“Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974

220px-BadCompanyBadCompanyKnown far and wide as a straightforward British rock band, Bad Company hit a home run with their debut LP in 1974, which topped the charts in the U.S. and spawned three singles.  Buried amidst the solid rock and roll of “Can’t Get Enough,” “Ready for Love” and “Movin’ On” is an evocative track called “Seagull” that features vocalist Paul Rodgers humming and singing along to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment.  I always wondered if Rodgers might have had any more songs like this tucked up his sleeve that were never recorded…  A tip of the hat to my friend Ray for turning me on to this fine song when he sang it often around the campfire.

“Bitter With the Sweet,” Carole King, 1972

220px-CKRhymesKing’s “Tapestry” LP was the early ’70s biggest success story, selling 20 million copies and reigning supreme on the charts for most of 1971.  The two albums that followed — “Music” and “Rhymes and Reasons” — carried on in the same vein as “Tapestry,” with similar heartfelt lyrics and easygoing piano-based melodies.  The singles “Sweet Seasons” and “Been to Canaan” did well, and the albums reached #1 and #2 respectively, but how often do you hear Carole King any more, besides “It’s Too Late”?  Such a treasure trove of fine tunes on these albums.  I’ve always been fond of “Bitter With the Sweet,” carried by Charles Larkey’s bouncing bass line and Bobbye Hall’s spritely bongos, congas and tambourine.  King’s lyrics tell of the importance of learning how to accept the bad with the good that life has to offer.

“Warmth of Your Eyes,” Lazarus, 1971

603497980567-1Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary was on tour in 1971 supporting his solo debut LP when a struggling singer-songwriter named Bill Hughes approached him after a gig and invited him to his home nearby.  Yarrow agreed and was then exposed to a demo tape of Hughes’ music, performed by his three-piece group Lazarus.  “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the songs — music and lyrics — and the stunning harmonies,” said Yarrow, who helped the group secure a recording contract.  Sadly, inexplicably, Lazarus never did break through, throwing in the towel after only two albums, but I’m here to tell you their music is superb, and well worth your time.  I could have selected any of a half-dozen tracks from their debut LP, but I’m going with “Warmth of Your Eyes” for its gentle, spiritual vibe and gorgeous harmonies.

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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…