Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Great Performances # 5

This may seem to be a bit of a departure for this blog, at least in the case of our first performance by of all people, Sammy Davis, Jr., this being the place for all things rockin'.  Despite being a pop music legend and arguably the most talented member of the Rat Pack ( he could hold his own vocally with Sinatra and Martin, comedically with Joey Bishop, had better acting chops than Peter Lawford and unlike any of them, he was a dancer), he would seem out of place in a discussion on rock music. I have him here for two reasons, firstly he is taking a great pop/rock song and making it greater, in this instance Jerry Jeff Walker's "Mr Bojangles" (#77, Billboard Top 100, 1969). Secondly , in this performance you can see what an influence he was on "The King Of Pop", the late great Michael Jackson. This performance done in 1985, just four years before all those cigarettes robbed him of his voice and ultimately his life, allows one to imagine Mr. Jackson watching this and immediately going out to buy a hat. It is a performance that never fails to bring a tear to my eye.
The second Great Performance is by Bob Marley doing "Redemption Song". It is an example of the power and emotion he so effortlessly called forth. This version is simply the man, his voice and his acoustic guitar surrounded by The Wailers, who can only sit and take in the devastating passion he evokes in this performance, one that also moves this listener to tears. I hope you enjoy this unlikely pairing who while they lived, shared in common the ability to touch people's souls.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Living Colour

Formed in New York City in 1984 by guitarist extraordinaire Vernon Reid, Living Colour is known above all else, as the highest profile rock band to have all black members. This does an injustice to the band in my opinion, something of a back-handed compliment if you will, for two main reasons. Firstly, if you consider the beginnings of rock and roll as we know it today, certain names come into sharp focus. Names like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Fats Domino for a start. Look a bit further back and you will see Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry's main influence. Look a bit further ahead and you'll see a gentleman named Jimi Hendrix. Rock pioneers all. Black men every one. Therefore logically speaking, a black rock band should raise no eyebrows or give anyone a bit of pause. Secondly, while these guys rock quite hard, their music was and is a fusion of hard rock, jazz, funk and even hip-hop. They are considerably more than a "rock" band, black or otherwise. Lyrically, they go personal, political and everything in between.
Coming from the The Black Rock Coalition, a non-profit organization founded by Reid and others for musicians of color interested in rock and alternative music, Reid formed several incarnations of Living Colour with varying members and musical styles. It was the final stable line-up of Reid, bassist Muzz Skillings, drummer Will Calhoun and vocalist Corey Glover that would release the album Vivid in 1988. With the help of MTV exposure and consistently impressive live appearances the album went to #6 on the Billboard chart, followed by a tour with  The Rolling Stones and an appearance on Saturday Night Live performing what would become their signature song, the massive rocker "Cult Of Personality"
1990 brought the band's second full-length LP, Time's Up, a diverse collection showcasing their many musical influences. Delta blues, funk, heavy metal and hip-hop were all represented with cameos by Little Richard, Maceo Parker, Queen Latifah and Doug E. Fresh. This album earned them a Grammy Award that year for Best Hard Rock Album. In 1991 the band joined the first Lollapalooza Tour and released a collection of out-takes called Biscuits which featured a metal-ized cover of James Brown's classic "Talkin' Loud And Sayin' Nothin'".

Bassist Skillings left the band in 1992 due to musical differences and was replaced by Doug Wimbish. This new line-up released the band's subsequent album, Stain which was not as successful as previous efforts, reaching #26, representing a steady decline in sales from their debut. The band's fan base remained strong but it wasn't enough to prevent the band's break-up in 1995, being unable to reach a concensus on the musical direction of their next album.

Which brings me to another point. I believe Living Colour was in a strange way a victim of their own musical diversity. Unfortunately, the music business needs labels. Whether or not you agree with this (and I do not) it is imperative from a commercial standpoint to be able to market your product to a particular demographic. Record companies need to know if they are selling a rock band to rock fans, a funk band to funk fans, and so on. Living Colour, along with groups like 24-7 Spyz and Bad Brains effortlessly swing from genre to genre, usually on a single album, or for that matter, a single song. While this is a testament to the band's sheer brilliance, it also makes them a difficult sell to the average listener. Focus is what makes most successful rock bands achieve the all-important magic word: accessability. Thus, beyond the hit "Cult Of Personality", Living Colour find themselves with a stong and loyal following, but never the super-stardom they so richly deserve.

The group reformed on December 21 ,2000 at CBGB's This was followed by their fourth studio album, Collideoscope in 2003, their first album to not chart at all, though it was critically acclaimed. In 2006 vocalist Cory Glover took on the role of Judas Escariot in a national tour of  Jesus Christ, Superstar. King's X bassist/vocalist Dug Pinnick took over for him in Living Colour until the musical's tour ended in 2008 when Glover rejoined the band.
Chair In The Doorway, the band's latest LP, was released on Megaforce Records in 2009 and sold approximately 2,800 copies its first week and landed at #159 on Billboard's Top 200. The band embarked on a world tour in support of the album. Still active, the band plans to release another album.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Z Z Top

Blues, Boogie and beards! If you are a true connoisseur of all things rockin', then these three words are all you need to know that we're talking about that little old band from Texas...ZZ Top! They came together in Houston, Texas in 1969 with the original line-up of guitarist/vocalist Billy Gibbons, bassist Anthony Barajas and drummer Peter Perez. After several more personell changes that same year, Gibbons was joined by bassist/vocalist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard, who surname notwithstanding, happens to be the only member without a beard. this line-up has remained unchanged to this day. The band's music is firmly rooted in the blues with an irresistable blend of boogie and hard rock, absorbing modern influences through the years without losing one iota of the down-home boogie that lies at their core. All this is topped off with songs that celebrate the joys of the road, whiskey, good women and bad behaviour with a lyrical cleverness and sense of humour. As to the band's name, Gibbons states in his autobiography, Rock And Roll Gearhead , the "ZZ" came from Bluesman Z.Z. Hill and the "Top" from blues great B.B. King, whom Gibbons considered to be at the "top" of his list of blues artists.

The band's manager Bill Ham, after molding the band into a professional act got them signed to London Records. They played their first show on February 10, 1970 in Beaumont, Texas and their debut album titled ZZ Top's First Album (clever, that) was released in 1971. Short on polish but long on attitude, the single from that LP "(Somebody Else Been) Shakin' Your Tree" peaked at #50 on the Billboard Top 100. The second album, 1972's Rio Grande Mud was greeted by good reviews but got very little airplay and as a result charted at #104 on the Billboard Top 200. The third time proved to be the charm with 1973's Tres Hombres. The band's gritty punch and Gibbons' yet-to-be -duplicated guitar tone along with quality songs like their ode to a small-town Texas whorehouse "La Grange" earned them their fist trip to the Top 10 and made them stars in the process.

It was on the subsequent tour to promote Tres Hombres that the band recorded the live tracks for the next album Fandango. This would be a half-live, half-studio collection which would also enter the top 10 while the single from the LP, "Tush" would peak at #20 on the Billboard chart. This solidified their status as one of the elite touring and recording acts.
1976 saw
the release of Tejas which was not as big a success as the previous two albums. The band continued their world tour and all told they had been touring for the last seven years. At the end of the tour the band split up for what was intended to be a 90-day break. The 90 days extended to two years, during which Gibbons and Hill grew their famous chest-length beards. Beard however, remained beardless. In 1979 the band signed to Warner Brothers Records and released the album Deguello. While going platinum, it only went as high as #24 on the U.S. chart. Two singles came from that album, a cover of the Sam And Dave hit "I Thank You" and the group's own "Cheap Sunglasses".

Next came El Loco, followed by what was probably their biggest album to date, 1983's Eliminator. A critical and commercial success, it sold more than 10 million copies and contained four mainstream rock hits, "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "You Got Me Under Pressure", "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man". The videos to those songs got heavy play on MTV, and the band won two MTV Video Music Awards for "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man".

Eliminator was a bit of a departure from the band's previous outings. Synthesizers and drum machines were used. In addition to this, research was obtained by the band that indicated the tempo of 120 beats per minute was the most popular tempo in rock at the time, which resulted in most of the tracks being recorded at that tempo. All too often such concessions to current trends caused a band to lose some of their music's soul and integrity. Not so here, these changes only served to add more punch to an already hard-as-nails approach. This formula was repeated on 1985's Afterburner, resulting in the band's highest charting album to date, with all of the singles from it reaching the top 40,two of which going to #1. The album sold 5 million units. The video for the single "Velcro Fly" was choreographed by Paula Abdul.

ZZ Top's last album for Warner Brothers was Recycler, which marked a return to the earlier, simpler guitar driven sound. With less synthesizer and pop influence, the album was not so well received by the fan base they built up with the previous two albums, which was huge. Fortunately the band had already had a large following from earlier in their career which offset this to a degree. While never matching the sales of Eliminator and Afterburner, Recycler did go platinum nonetheless on the strength of hits like "Give It Up" and "Burger Man".

The band signed a $35 million deal with RCA Records in 1994 and released the million-selling album Antenna. Subsequent releases Rythmeen and XXX sold well but not at the level of any of their previous output. The band's tours however maintained sell-out levels. Their final RCA album was the particularly guitar-heavy Mescalero.They performed at the half time show of Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, and made many guest appearances at sports events and television specials.
The band was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004. They announced in 2008 plans to record a new album with producer Rick Rubin that will be a return to their pre-80s sound.