Doggone, how I love them old songs

No one can claim that Dodger Stadium, or any stadium, has the best acoustics for rock music, or any music.  But this is 2017, and the sound technicians these days are capable of wondrous things.

If the musicians involved still have the chops to offer convincing live performances, there’s no reason why such events can’t be an overwhelming success.

Witness the universally acclaimed “Desert Tour” three-day event out on the Coachella grounds in Indio, CA, last October.  Loads of money — $160 million — was made on that baby, a fact that didn’t escape the attention of other promoters.

ClassicWestcoverIrving Azoff, the scrappy multi-millionaire who got his start micro-managing The Eagles in their heyday, sure as hell noticed.  He saw an opportunity to copycat that success with “The Classic,” a two-day event featuring six major classic rock bands (all of whom he manages, by the way).  He would one-up things by staging his concerts on BOTH coasts — July 15-16 in L.A. and July 29-30 in New York.

He was right, of course.  The LA extravaganza last weekend was a huge win commercially and, luckily for him, it was a dramatic artistic success as well.  Not perfect, mind you, but really friggin’ awesome.

As usual, the cynics (and there were many) raised questions.  How many of the original members were still on stage in the lineup?  Could anyone still hit the high notes?  Would they be a shadow of their former selves?  Let’s take a look.

Night #1

The Doobie Brothers

There have been more than two dozen musicians over the years who could claim to have been a Doobie Brother at some point.  And the group has always been something of a dichotomy:  The rock and roll boogie music of the original 1972-1975 Tom Johnston era, DoobieBrothersCoverand the softer R&B-laced music of the 1976-1982 Michael McDonald period.  But this gig was all about the early stuff; McDonald was nowhere to be seen, choosing to remain a solo artist.  And that was fine with me, if not with a segment of the audience.

Johnston was the founder, the singer/songwriter/guitarist behind the classic rock warhorses like “Listen to the Music,” “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Sweet Maxine,” “Take Me In Your Arms” and “Jesus is Just Alright,” and he led the band through spirited versions of all of these.  Just as important, however, is the great Pat Simmons, the singer/songwriter/guitarist who served in both versions of The doobies2Doobies.  His songs have played an important roll in the group’s legacy, from sleepers like “Clear as the Driven Snow” to perhaps their most popular track, the southern/country staple “Black Water.”

Multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined the band back in 1979 and has been pretty much a steady member ever since, was on hand to contribute some fine guitar, vocals, fiddle and harmonica as needed.  And it was a pleasant surprise to see the great Bill Payne (from Little Feat) holding court on keyboards.   Otherwise, the stage was filled with new faces providing drums, percussion and bass.

The sound quality was rather erratic, sad to say; sometimes the guitar solos rang out clear as a bell, yet in other instances the mix was rather muddy.  Primarily for this reason, I give them a grade of 7.5 on a 1-10 scale.  Not bad, not bad at all, but I’ve heard them much sharper in previous shows.

Steely Dan

Except for its first year or two of existence, Steely Dan is, in fact, not really a band at all, but the brainchild of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.  These two musical wizards 815176942wrote all of the wondrous songs in the repertoire, and have assembled an ever-changing gang of crack session musicians to capture the guitar, keyboard, sax and background vocal parts they envisioned for their quirky but irresistible material.

Becker was absent at this gig, apparently with some sort of undisclosed illness, but his shoes were capably filled by jazz guitar virtuoso Larry Carlton on guitar, who had Classic_West_Steely_Dan_07152017_MA_002played the key guitar solos on Steely Dan recordings like “Kid Charlemagne,” “Don’t Take Me Alive” and “Josie.”  The rest of the lineup included the mostly anonymous types Fagen has employed for decades who deserve our attention, especially the dominant four-man horn section, and the young drummer (not identified) who mastered the difficult time signatures and drum fills of numbers like “Aja” and “Bodhisattva.”

Fagen, meanwhile, did his usual admirable job on vocals and keyboards, leading the band through its tricky paces on “Green Earring,” “Time Out of Mind” and “Babylon Sisters.”  The Steely Dan catalog is such an extraordinary cornucopia of fabulous songs, from the oldies “Dirty Work” and “Reelin’ in the Years” to later work like “Hey Nineteen” and “Black Cow,” which allow ample room for the various musicians to stretch out.

A great, although brief, set; they were ushered off far too quickly, in my opinion.  Still, I give their gig an 8.5, leaning toward 9.

The Eagles

This was the one everyone was talking about.  It was the first time the band attempted a full-blown live show since Glenn Frey‘s death 18 months ago, and plenty of people wondered about the wisdom of staging an Eagles show without him.  Hell, Led Zeppelin disbanded when they lost their drummer.  Shouldn’t this band hang it up without their co-founder/co-songwriter/co-singer?

SonFor this special concert, they came up with a clever way to fill the void:  They invited Frey’s talented son Deacon Frey to play guitar and sing with them, AND they recruited country music giant Vince Gill to offer his vocals and guitar as well.  The result was a thoroughly satisfying, emotional, energetic performance of 20 songs from The Eagles’ enviable catalog of sweet ballads and kickass rockers, carried by stellar harmonies throughout.

Appropriately, the setlist leaned mostly toward material that Frey had sung and/or written — “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “New Kid in Town,” “Heartache Tonight” — with either Gill or young Frey leading the way.  The latter song was marked by a surprise appearance by Frey’s old Detroit friend Bob Seger, although his vocals were largely hidden under the thick harmonies.

Don Henley, of course, played a crucial role as ringleader, drummer, occasional guitarist and singer of classics like “One of These Nights,” “Witchy Woman” and “The Best of My Love,” and a rare performance of “The Last Resort,” the dramatic closer on their “Hotel California” album.  I was pleased they still made room for Timothy B. Schmidt‘s warm moment in the sun, “I Can’t Tell You Why,” a huge crowd favorite.

mgid-uma-image-cmtBut here’s the thing about Saturday night’s show:  The crowd was actually treated to not three attractions, but four.  The irrepressible Joe Walsh, a mighty solo artist in his own right, hijacked the final third of the show with a six-song set that featured his amazing guitar work and immediately identifiable voice, cranking up the energy level a few notches in the process.  There was “In The City,” his tune from “The Long Run”; there were “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Hotel California,” both highlighted by Walsh’s searing guitar riffs and solos; there were his two biggest solo hits, “Rocky Mountain Way” and “Life’s Been Good”; and there was even a welcome dip back into his James Gang days with 1970’s “Funk #49.”

Grade:  9.5

It’s not at all clear whether The Eagles will tour (or record) with this lineup after these two Classic appearances.  Henley hedged the subject by thanking the fans for their decades of support:  “In case this is our last dance, I want to thank all our fans in Southern California.  It all started right here with you in Los Angeles 46 years ago…and we’re very grateful.”

 

Night #2

Earth Wind and Fire

It’s a testimony to this band’s founder and visionary, Maurice White, who died last year, that they are able to continue on without him in such a vibrant, polished way.  Anchored by the vocals and on-stage leadership of Philip Bailey, the ensemble that makes up Earth ewf12Wind & Fire did the impossible:  They got 50,000+ aging rock fans to get up off their asses and dance in the hot sunshine.

“Sing a Song,” “Shinin’ Star,” “Getaway,” “September,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Fantasy,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “After the Love Has Gone” — you all know the hits, and boy, did they play them.  The 10-man assembly, which included original members Verdine White on bass/vocals and Ralph Johnson on drums/vocals — gave a well choreographed, dynamic performance that included a heartfelt tribute to White in a photo montage during “Serpentine Fire,” and the stadium crowd responded enthusiastically.  Grade:  8.

Journey

For me, this was the puzzle piece that didn’t fit in The Classic’s six-band roster.  Journey was a mid-’70s progressive rock/fusion band born from the breakup of Santana’s original lineup who then made the switch to power ballads and high-volume rock with the addition of Steve Perry in 1978.  Perry chose to part company years ago, and although he was happy to show up for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a few months back, he declined to participate in this high-profile event.

No matter:   The group discovered — through YouTube — an uncanny Steve Perry imitator 815809360named Arnel Pineda, who is already approaching 20 years with the group, and he can (and did) convincingly belt out every Journey track you could possibly want.  And he jumped around the stage like a mischievous chimp, despite being almost 50 himself, making most of the 60+ folks who walked this stage over the weekend look like geriatrics in comparison.

Not sure why, but the sound crew for Journey felt the need to crank the sound levels way beyond tolerable — many decibels beyond every other band we heard over the weekend — and that made their set a bit of an endurance test.  I won’t lie, I’m not much of a Journey fan to begin with, and I sure didn’t need to hear their setlist at rocket-launch volume.  But I was journey12certainly impressed by Neal Schon‘s incendiary guitar work, Jonathan Cain‘s keyboards, and Pineda’s exuberance.

The crowd absolutely loved Journey, and their greatest hits set list:  “Open Arms, “Wheel in the Sky,” “Who’s Crying Now,” “Separate Ways,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Lights,” “Faithfully,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'”…  so I guess I’m in the minority, but these guys were by far my least favorite of the six acts.  I give them a 7.

Fleetwood Mac

With the bar set pretty high by The Eagles’ impressive headliner show the previous evening, expectations were fairly lofty for the kings and queens of LA classic rock to come through with a memorable performance to close out the proceedings on Sunday night.

960x0Some critics, most notably the LA times reviewer, lambasted them for “phoning it in” with a setlist identical to other recent gigs.  While I agree the band could’ve juggled the agenda a bit with a couple less-often-heard album tracks (“Over My Head”? “Sisters of the Moon”? “Blue Letter”?), it’s my view that the band stepped up with a solid show that thrilled the faithful and demonstrated their popularity remains sky-high.  I can confidently give it a solid 9.

Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie — the two ladies whose beautifully constructed songs of cunning mystery and sunny pop, respectively, have put Fleetwood Mac on the charts for so many years — didn’t disappoint.  From the warm melodies of McVie’s “Everywhere” abcnewsradioonline.comGetty_FleetwoodMac_032917-c991e0143b136b68d293d9831f97ea6593b3acecand “You Make Loving Fun” to the compelling dramas of Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” and “Rhiannon,” the balance struck between them provided a satisfying mix of light and dark, made clearer by visuals and lighting that complemented the work at hand.

But make no mistake about it:  Lindsey Buckingham is the guts and the genius of this group.  His astonishing acoustic guitar on 1987’s “Big Love” and sizzling electric guitar on the amazing “I’m So Afraid” and the encore, “Go Your Own Way,” reminded one and all who holds the baton in this Mac symphony.  Any list of the premier guitarists in the 25661_show_landscape_large_01business should include Buckingham in the Top Twenty.  And his songwriting and vocals are crucial as well.

Buckingham said in a recent interview that he agreed to do this gig only as a favor to manager Azoff, because otherwise, his attention is focused, as always, toward the present and the future, not the past.  He and Christine McVie, in fact, have just released an excellent “duo” album of accomplished tracks that, with Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass for most of the recordings, essentially amounts to a new Fleetwood Mac album…if only Nicks would have contributed 3-4 songs from her latest in-the-works solo project.

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And that begs the question:  Why aren’t these bands trying to challenge their audiences, even just a little, by playing some of the songs they’ve written and recorded recently?  In the case of Buckingham/McVie, they’re heading out on the road soon to support the new album, and apparently chose to hold the new stuff for those shows.  But what about The Eagles?  They put out a remarkably great album, “Long Road Out of Eden,” in 2007 that has several great tracks worthy of inclusion in a 2017 setlist.  Journey, too, released a top 5 album, “Revelation,” in 2008 but ignored it on Sunday.  And Steely Dan had a Grammy-winning LP, “Two Against Nature,” in 2000, and another, “Everything Must Go,” in 2003.  Why not give us a taste?

I’ll tell you why:  This was, after all, “The Classic (West),” and the idea, clearly, was to offer classic rock bands playing exclusively classic rock music.  Of the 97 songs performed by these six artists, only two are more recent than thirty years old (The Doobies’ “The Doctor” from 1989, Fleetwood Mac’s “Bleed to Love Her” from 1997).  These bands know what their bread-and-butter fans want:  a trip down the proverbial memory lane that these love fests provide.

They delivered, and then some.  And I guess it’s kind of hard to argue with that.

 

Good Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’

In early 1969, electric guitar virtuoso Duane Allman — then only 21 but already revered by the likes of Eric Clapton and Muscle Shoals studio head Rick Hall — had finally assembled the powerhouse group he had been looking for.

He had a rock-solid bass player, Berry Oakley.  He had not one but two drummers, Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson, who found a way to complement each other rather than compete for attention.  And he had a second lead guitarist, Dickey Betts, with whom he could jam and build inventive harmonies and melodies on blues classics and originals alike.

But he was missing a singer, and he knew exactly who he wanted.  “There’s only one guy who can sing in this band, and that’s my baby brother,” Duane said defiantly.

Gregg-Allman-books-billboard-1548Gregg Allman, keyboard player/singer/songwriter, was still under the thumb of a record company in L.A., where the brothers had been pushed into recording two unsatisfying albums as The Hour Glass.  Duane had bailed on the contract in favor of session work back in Alabama, leaving Gregg to appease the label.

But Duane eventually pleaded with his brother to return and join his hot new band, so Gregg hitchhiked home to Georgia and walked into a rehearsal one March afternoon.  The group dove in to a Muddy Waters song they’d been working on called “Trouble No More,” and Gregg was floored.  Duane told Gregg to sing, and he confided, “I don’t know if I can cut this. I don’t know if I’m good enough.”  The older brother retorted, “You little punk, I told these people all about you, and you’re not gonna come in here and let me down.”  They counted it off and Gregg gave it all he had.  “Afterward, there was a long silence,” he said, “and we all knew.”

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Once again, rock music fans are mourning the passing of one of the musical giants of the ’60s/’70s/’80s, another in a depressingly long line of greats from that era who have died in the past 18 months or so.

Gregg Allman, one of the two fraternal founders of The Allman Brothers Band, died of liver cancer May 27th at age 69.  His death leaves only Betts and Jaimoe still living of the six original members.

He may have been the last of the six to join, but Gregg made perhaps the most lasting impression, thanks to his deft Hammond B3 keyboard passages, his iconic blues-based songs, and most notably, an indelible vocal style that borrowed from Ray Charles, Muddy Waters and James Brown to create a distinctive growl perfectly suited for the repertoire the Brothers chose to play.

2c9bfdd95c98c9105c1dd92f346e41b8The Allmans, whose father was killed when the boys were very young,  grew up in Nashville and Daytona Beach, attending military school while their mother worked to achieve a CPA degree.  Both boys were exposed first to surf music and then rhythm and blues, and they fought over the one guitar the family owned until their mother bought them new ones for Christmas.  As they started playing in local Florida bands in the mid-’60s, focusing on Top 40 and and R&B, Duane would sing, unsuccessfully, which led to Gregg cultivating his own vocal talents.

By late 1969, The Allman Brothers Band was honed into a precision-like blues outfit, thanks to relentless rehearsing and live gigs.  Their debut LP, “The Allman Brothers Band,” failed to catch fire, dying on the charts at #188, despite Gregg’s top-shelf original material like “Ain’t My Cross to Bear,” “Dreams” and especially the incendiary “Whipping Post,” which became the highlight of virtually every Allman Brothers concert for 40 years.

the-allman-brothers-band-bestGregg’s contributions to the band’s overall style couldn’t be overestimated, said Jaimoe last week.  “His voice and his lyrics were like two more instruments in the group mix, which had a huge impact on how we played and what we sounded like.  And he came in with all these great, great songs.  My wife would ask me, ‘How does someone so young write songs so mature?’  His music was based on rhythm and blues, but his songwriting was influenced by people like Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan, who wrote poems.  For years I didn’t pay that much attention to the lyrics, but then they hit me!  So powerful.”

Allman’s influence continued with the group’s second effort, “Idlewild South,” which included his classic “Midnight Rider,” and the debut of Betts as a great songwriter in his own right with tracks like “Revival” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.”  While the LP managed to reach #38, it soon dropped from the charts, prompting Gregg to think, “Damn, maybe we were wrong about this group…”

Duane, however, was driven and positive, convinced the group would make it big if they kept plugging away.  Betts said, “We knew were good, but we didn’t think we could get everyone else to see that.  I used to say, ‘This band is never going to make it because we’re too f–king good.'”

The most distinctive thing the Allman Brothers brought to the party, said Gregg, was the interlocked connectedness of the twin lead guitars.  “From the very beginning, Duane started picking up on melodies Dickey was playing and offering a harmony, and we’d build whole jams off of that.  They got those ideas from jazz horn players like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, I think.”

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Betts agreed.  “We also borrowed fiddle lines from the western swing music I’d grown up with.  You know, it’s a tricky thing to go freestyle with two guitars.  Most bands with two guitarists either have everything worked out or they stay out of each other’s way, because it’s easy to sound like two cats fighting if you’re not careful.”

Those who followed the group closely knew there was much more going on in their live shows than on their albums.  When they warmed up for Blood, Sweat and Tears at the Fillmore East in late 1969 and Buddy Guy and B.B. King at the Fillmore West in early 1970, they were exposed to a wider, more sympathetic audience, and something clicked in their heads.

“We realized that we had a much better sound on stage than in a studio,” Allman recalled.  “Keeping each song down to three or four minutes just didn’t work for us.  We were at our best when we went off and experimented with exploratory jams.  Having the audience there was a big part of what we did.  So we knew we needed to make a live album.”

Fillmore_East_Cover_1000-1“The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East,” a double album culled from shows in March 1971, changed everything.  It reached #13 that summer, and set the new gold standard for live recordings, both in terms of production quality and the sheer brilliance of the group’s performances.  Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” became a signature tune; “Whipping Post” evolved into a 23-minute tour de force; the instrumental “Liz Reed” (as it is affectionately known) is regarded by many as one of the greatest live tracks ever recorded.  Nearly a half-century after its release, the album still sounds fresh and original. The band quickly outgrew the regional Southern club circuit and became a top draw nationally.  Duane’s vision was finally coming true.

But then, tragedy struck, the first of several that haunted the band’s career over the years.  Duane Allman, leader, spark plug, guitar wunderkind, was killed in a motorcycle accident on October 29, 1971, in Macon, Georgia.  The band reeled from the loss, and peach-727314Gregg, who regarded Duane as a father figure, was devastated.  Many observers predicted the group wouldn’t survive without their fallen leader.  Indeed, even though the band regrouped only three weeks later and soldiered on (“The only way to deal with it was to play,” Gregg said), and Gregg rebounded by writing “Ain’t Wasting Time No More” in tribute, some still feel the band was never as good after Duane’s passing.

Certainly, they were a different band without that remarkable dual-guitar interplay.  Betts’ emergence as the group’s de facto leader with his more country-influenced songs like “Blue Sky” and the enormous hit “Ramblin’ Man” irrevocably changed the dynamic.  And there’s no denying the deteriorating effect that serious drug use had on the band’s drive, internal relationships and general health.  In an eerie coincidence, Berry Oakley died in a motorcycle wreck almost exactly a year later, only three blocks from the site of Duane’s death.  Again, they put their noses to the grindstone and kept going, with new member Lamar Williams on bass and additional keyboard player Chuck Leavell contributing great piano parts to the overall mix.

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Commercially, The Allman Brothers Band was unstoppable.  The half-studio, half-live “Eat a Peach” reached #4 in 1972, and “Brothers and Sisters” was the #2 LP in the nation in the fall of 1973.  Allman turned in some of his finest singing on tracks like “Wasted Words,” “Come and Go Blues,” the lovely acoustic piece “Melissa” and the extraordinary slow blues “Jelly Jelly.”  The group performed before hundreds of thousands of fans, earning huge sums of money.  “We’d been through hell, but somehow we were rolling bigger than ever,” Allman said.

But storm clouds were forming.  Gregg had brought songs to the band that they chose to Greggallman-laidbackreject, which he resented, causing him to record his impressive solo debut, “Laid Back,” that same year.  It did well, peaking at #13, with outstanding tracks like “Queen of Hearts,” “Multi-Colored Lady,” a reworking of “Midnight Rider” and a remarkable cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.”  During a break in the Allman Brothers’ tour, Gregg assembled his own touring band, complete with orchestral section, and even put out a live album afterwards to help recoup some of the touring costs.

All this solo activity, marked by widespread drug and alcohol abuse, created tensions within the group, made worse when Allman began a relationship with mega pop star TwoTheHardWayCher in 1975, which turned him into a paparazzi target and subject of ridicule by the rock press.  The marriage proved short-lived, although it spawned a son, Elijah Blue, and a forgettable LP.

The last straw came when Allman chose to accept a deal to avoid prosecution by testifying against a former roadie who had been his drug supplier.  The band split into factions and didn’t communicate for years.

A 1979 reunion with a modified lineup produced one great LP, “Enlightened Rogues,” followed by two duds and another breakup, this one lasting throughout the 1980s, when Gregg_Allman_Band_I_Am_No_Angelthe Allman Brothers’ brand of music had fallen out of favor (although Gregg enjoyed a surprise solo hit in 1987 with “I’m No Angel,” carried by his distinctive vocals).

The band’s 20th anniversary and the success of a multi-CD boxed set, “Dreams,” gave the band good cause to reunite in 1989, and they began touring again with a vengeance, attracting a new generation of fans to go with the older fans who were delighted their heroes were performing together again.  Three fine albums –“Seven Turns” (1990), “Shades of Different Worlds” (1991) and “Where It ll Begins” (1994) — did moderately well, with a balanced mix of tunes by both Allman and Betts.

Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 was marred by an embarrassing appearance by Allman, who was too drunk to deliver his remarks at the podium.  Seeing the video afterwards mortified him, and he finally committed, after numerous failed attempts, to getting clean.  He maintained sobriety for the rest of his 22 years, although he suffered numerous ailments and hospitalizations in his final ten years, and it was liver troubles that claimed his life.

allmanAlthough the band called it quits in 2009 after a 40-year run, Allman continued to record and tour.  His 2011 effort, “Low Country Blues,” performed better than any of the latter day Allman Brothers LPs, and his “Live:  Back to Macon, GA” double CD featured a full horn section that offered surprisingly unusual takes on new blues and old classics.

Any analysis of Allman’s legacy would be dishonest if it ignored one other glaring character defect, which he readily admitted:  His inability to nurture or maintain personal relationships in his life, particularly with women.  Although he loved and respected his mother, he was routinely unfaithful to each of his eight wives, and mostly neglected his five children.

But as the lyrics to his song “Wasted Words” indicate, Allman recognized his flaws and was generally matter-of-fact about them:  “Well, I ain’t no saint, and you sure as hell ain’t no savior, every other Christmas I would practice good behavior, that was then, this is now, don’t ask me to be Mister Clean, ’cause baby, I don’t know how…”

Celebrating Gregg Allman: Storytelling And Special Performances Featuring Eric Church

When it came to music, however, he was focused and dedicated.  Even when he was in the depths of heroin addiction in the ’70s and ’80s, he managed to pull his act together for stage shows, offering not only spot-on vocals but precise organ solos.  “Gregory was a hell of a keyboard player,” said Jaimoe, “and his great singing overshadowed his organ playing.  ‘Less is more’ is supposed to be a big thing now.   Well, he was 1323444951gregg_img01_hiresdoing that a long time ago.  He could play a solo that was just eight bars, but it was perfect.  He played exactly what needed to be played, every time.”

Jaimoe takes issue with those who label Allman as “one of the best white blues singers ever.”

“That’s bullshit,” he says.  “He’s one of the best blues singers, period.”