It’s hard to believe it had been 6 years since The Aristocrats last came to Florida. Previously they played at West End in Sanford, a little bar just north of Orlando, and it was almost a religious experience. The place held about 100 people, and I was able to stand just a few feet away from Guthrie, Marco and Bryan. This year, they came to a slightly larger venue downtown Orlando and blew the packed house away. I really don’t need to write much for the review, other than wow. If you have any interest in progressive, instrumental music you need to go see the band.
It’s not just the mind-boggling level of musicianship from every member; but the humor, the interaction with each other and the interaction with the crowd that made it special. Bryan Beller got the crowd going for every song: leading chants, clap-alongs, cheering. While this is an instrumental band, he basically filled the (necessary) role of front man.
You Know What?
Touring on support of their new album “You Know What?” they played a great mix of new and old material. Happily they played my favorite track from the new album, “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.” Bryan Beller went through a lengthy backstory for how the song came about. Part of what made the show so much fun was hearing the backstories behind many of the new songs.
Plastic Farm Animals
Happily, the plastic pig and chicken made a return!
I was pretty tired by the time the Aristocrats took the stage, but I’m so glad I made it out. The musicianship is incredible, of course, but the humor and audience interaction puts they in a class way above most instrumental rock/fusion/shred bands. Highly enjoyable, and absolutely worth going to see.
Not a lot of bands have the balls to do a drum solo after the first song of the set. That kind of cool and unexpected event marked one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while. On a beautiful, warm evening in May, Greta Van Fleet took to the Orlando Amphitheater with tons of energy and blew the place away.
I loved that Greta Van Fleet delivered what I love about live music – they went beyond just playing their songs as-is. If you do it just like the record, why go see it live? On a few numbers they really stretched out, rode on the energy of the crowd, and took some familiar tunes in new places. I want to see interplay between the musicians. I want to see some chances taken. For all the flack Greta Van Fleet gets for their Zeppelin-isms, they take a lot more chances on stage than you might expect. Of course, their more popular tunes were all represented: Highway Song; Lover, Leaver; When The Curtain Falls; etc. I’ve been a fan for a while, but I was surprised how well I knew their catalog.
Props to the whole band, but I want to call out a couple things. First, the singer, Joshua Kiszka, is a freak plain and simple. How he can hit those notes all night, show after show, is beyond me. He’s got a pretty high voice, but there’s gravel there. The way a bluesy rock singer should sound. I don’t know if he’s going to have a voice left when he’s 50, but for now he was incredible to see live. He’s also a great front man, and had the crowd engaged all night.
I also dug that Sam Kiszka (bass) did a number of songs on the organ, in the vein of John Paul Jones. It was a cool bit of variety. He’s a great bassist in that he holds down the low end and doesn’t overplay, but adds movement to the songs when necessary. Some bassists in rock bands just pound out eighth notes all night. Sometimes that’s what the song calls for, but some times you need the bassist to walk up to the IV, you need them to add a riff at just the right spot. He did that.
Props to Jake Kiszka’s guitar tone, which was thick, chunky and perfect for the music. It was ROCK guitar tone. He’s not necessarily a flashy player, but he serves the song whether through riffs, solos or extended improv jams. He did the blues rock thing, he played some slide, and pulled out the acoustic for a couple of tunes. He played his SG for most of the set, and seems to be forming a signature sound and style.
I mentioned it at the top but Daniel Wagner’s drum solo after the first song was a nice, unexpected surprise. It wasn’t long, but it was cool. He’s similar to Jake in that he’s not really a flashy player, but absolutely solid and always served the song.
To some degree I expected it, but I was happy to see young and old, men and women all enjoying the show. I saw 20-something girls singing along. I stood next to a guy in his 50s that had seen Greta Van Fleet over 20 times. There were modern rock fans, classic rock fans, metal fans, blues fans, and people just going out for a show. It’s nice to see this type of blues-influenced rock have such a big, wide draw.
The crowd was really engaged all night, singing along, hands in the air. Cell phones weren’t *too* bad… although it helped to be outdoors. At one point someone threw a bouquet of roses at Josh (the singer), it hit him square in the face… kind of funny. He laughed it off, took one of the roses and put it in his pants for the rest of the night.
I had never been to the Orlando Amphitheater before, and I feared the worst – crowded, dirty, terrible sound. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Greta Van Fleet had the best live sound I’ve heard in ages. Everything was clear, it was loud but not too loud. I was pretty close up front on the right side of the stage. Normally being right in front of the PA would be a deal breaker, but here it wasn’t too bad. I did switch from my 18db to 30db ear plugs partway through, but that’s average for me. Actually, better than average. Due to my worsening tinnitus, ear plugs are simply a must at every show.
Because it’s a large area, part of the Central Florida Fairground, there were tons of options for food and drinks as well.
If there was a downside, it was the $20 parking, but you’re right there in the fairgrounds, close to the entrace so I didn’t feel put out.
The opening band, Ida Mae, did a great set of basically straight up blues. It was so gratifying to see a big and diverse crowd getting down to blues in 2019. The (generally) acoustic duo did a mix of originals and covers, and weaved in some nice banter to engage the audience. I dug it, check them out!
Most of the time when I hear metal bands do acoustic versions of their songs, they just swap out the electric guitars for acoustic and call it a day. Same basic arrangement, only with a tone that doesn’t quite… fit. That’s why I was so impressed with Metallica’s recent All Within My Hands acoustic set. They totally rearranged the tunes to make them work in an acoustic arrangement, but they still keep the spirit of the song. They didn’t turn them into country or folk tunes, but they didn’t take the easy way out. Bottom line: it works.
Highlights for me include the opener, Disposable Heroes, which took me a while to even recognize it’s so drastically different. It definitely sets the stage for what’s to come, though, and it works great. I was never a huge fan of the Black album to begin with, let alone how overplayed some of the songs are. If I never heard Enter Sandman” again it’d be fine. The acoustic arrangement on Helping Hands was a total breath of fresh air, though, and totally enjoyable. It takes a lot for me to enjoy that song, but I must admit I do! I also really dug hearing the Hardwired bonus disc track When A Blind Man Cries. It’s one of those bonus tracks that seemed “not quite finished.” Not as polished as the rest of the album, although the song had promise. In the acoustic setting, it felt more full. More complete. Finally I want to call out the bluesy version of Four Horsemen. It could have easily turned cheesy, but they pulled off turning a quintessential metal song into basically a blues. Hetfield’s voice carries it, as does the pounding rhythm section.
The Whole Album
If you’re a Metallica fan, or a music fan interested in how you take songs from one context and put them into another successfully and with independent musical merit, this is a great album.
I can’t count how many times I’ve watched the movie. As a teenager, I had the entire script memorized. I copied it onto VHS from a TBS broadcast. I bought the “official” VHS (which was different from what aired on TV). It was by far my favorite movie of all time, and as a fan of high fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons and all that – Conan fit right into my sweet spot. I also loved that as a character, Conan didn’t rely on magic, mutant powers, or high-tech toolbelts. He was just a man with an iron will. The Robert E. Howard books the movie draws from are also great, of course, and I’ve ready them all. Multiple times.
The soundtrack has absolutely stuck with me over the decades, and I still love it when Riders of Doom comes up on my random “workout” playlist. When I’m out running 10 miles, this is what I want. When I was a computer programmer for a living, I also loved to write code to the soundtrack when I was under pressure. Maybe it was the energy, maybe it was the drive and attitude, maybe it was just helping me embody the “one man versus the world” ethos… It’s powerful, dark, full of energy. The softer songs on the soundtrack are tender but mysterious. It really does evoke the feel of the world, which is what a good soundtrack should do.
I’ve found some interesting variations, like this album of the soundtrack transcribed for Organ on Spotify, and some nice covers.
The Recording Sessions
The music is well-documented on Wikipedia. The post is definitely worth a read, even for fans. Did you know Conan the Barbarian the last film released by a major studio with a mono soundtrack? Apparently Raffaella De Laurentiis balked at the cost ($30,000) of a stereo soundtrack and was worried over the paucity of theaters equipped with stereo sound systems
Thanks to youtube, I can finally see the actual recording sessions, which 16-year-old me would have loved back in the 80s
Amazingly, I also found the score online here, which is a great resource! I found out why the Anvil of Crom main theme tripped me up. The rhythm is a bar of 6:4 followed by a bar of 5:4. Pretty cool. Deceptively simple once you know what it’s actually doing, but my ear didn’t pick it up.
Blues in 2019 – indeed for the last couple decades – has been in an odd spot. If the music strays too far from tradition it becomes its own genre – it’s not blues anymore. The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll. On the other hand, blues is accused of not evolving or keeping up with the times. Well, critics, you can’t have it both ways.
A vocal subsection of the blues community is to blame, though. There are traditionalists who have a very narrow definition of what blues is, and what blues should be. In my opinion, that’s counter to the history of the music. Blues evolved from field calls to acoustic troubadours, to full-on electric bands. Up until perhaps the 60s, blues melded with other genres like jazz and ragtime much more easily. Other genres influenced blues, and vice versa It had evolved. It was blue collar music for the people. It was spiritual. It was party music. It was a music of humanity, expressing a deep connection with the ups and downs of life. It was the soundtrack to both rural and urban life. It evolved with the changing times of 20th century America and the great migration of black folks from the rural south to the industrial north. Blues has enjoyed periodic resurgences in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. All that said, I do think blues has and does continue to evolve. There’s a lot of great, contemporary blues written both by melding in contemporary influences, as well as addressing modern-day themes.
A lot of blues artists make music firmly in the traditionalist camp – there are still songs written about mules kicking in stalls. That’s fine, there’s a place for it. I still enjoy Muddy, the Wolf, T-Bone, Robert Johnson and all the godfathers of the genre and if someone really does a cover of one of those classic songs well then that’s wonderful. Blues has survived so long in part because the classic songs are timeless. The themes are as relevant today as they were in the 30s, 40s, 50s… That said, blues made in the 20th century blues was timely! Those artists were expressing their now. I’d like to see more of that, and that’s how blues stays relevant and vital in the 21st century.
Gary Clark Jr’s “This Land” is a great example of what I’d consider modern blues. It blends in some modern influences in the music, lyrically it tackles contemporary issues, but it still retains enough elements of blues to be an evolution not a complete departure.
One can also write new blues in a traditional style. The lyrics and approach can be very relevant and contemporary while retaining a more classic feel. There are lots of folks out there in the blues scene today doing it, but a great example is a song from Joe Bonamassa’s latest record titled “Just ‘Cause You Can Don’t Mean You Should.” Let’s see more of this!
What Makes It Blues?
What makes a music “not blues” anymore? To me, blue is defined by rhythm more than anything else. There are a million I-IV-V rock songs, but they’re not blues due to the lack of swing, they’re played very straight on the beat. Of course, blues is more than shuffles, but there’s always a swing. I think a lot of people get hung up on the chord progressions. There’s more to it than that. There’s also a lot more variety in blues than just I-IV-V. Go listen to T-Bone Walker. Listen to BB. Listen to early blue where the overlap with ragtime and jazz was more pronounced. This is a deeper topic, and I’ll cover it more in the future. For now let’s just say it’s a gray area, open to personal interpretation.
So Blues Isn’t Dead…
The real issue clouding blues’ evolution is its place in popular culture. This is the case for lots of music and indeed lots of art and media. Is blues dead? Is jazz dead? Is classical? Is rock dead? Is the guitar dead? Are drums even more dead? If you think those are true, then what isn’t dead? As long a people are creating and listening to blues, it’s not dead. Of course it doesn’t hold the same share of public mindset that it used to, but that’s okay, nothing stays at the top forever. If you look at the nature of the music business in this decade – the era of streaming and Instagram – blues is doing as well as any other popular 20th century music. Look at the myriad blues festivals out there, small and large? Look at the use of blues in advertising and movie soundtracks? As noted above, if blues needs anything it’s more contemporary songs. It doesn’t need to turn into EDM or hip hop. Adding those influences to blues might be great if it’s done well, but it can stay true to its roots and still evolve.
Keeping Up With New Blues
If you’re on Spotify, their “In The Name of the Blues” playlist is a good mix
There’s also the weekly Smokestack Lightnin’ radio show, which broadcasts out of WUCF in Orlando, Florida. Fortunately they stream online. They tend towards more traditional blues, but still great to hear new stuff. They’ve been at it for a long time and it’s a real treasure.
A simple google search will reveal a myriad blues festivals in every part of the country, all year long. There are a bunch of blues cruises. There are blues clubs, like my local Central Florida favorite, The Alley. There are lots of great, young blues artists out there. My message to them is: keep the spirit of the blues going strong by writing powerful, emotional and contemporary music that connects with people.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I gave in to relentless marketing. The weekly emails of offers from Blues Music magazine finally me when they offered a year of the magazine and Eric Gales‘ new album “The Bookends” for $20. I’m glad I jumped on it, though, because the album is great.
I saw Eric Gales for the first time on an Experience Hendrix tour a few year ago, and he was one of the highlights. It got him on my radar, but I didn’t get a good sense of what he was all about until I saw him on tour about a year ago. I had been pretty burned out on blues/rock for a while, but he restored my faith. So much raw passion and energy! It was way more than some cool guitar playing, although there’s plenty of that. It was the energy that got me. I also liked the funkier direction of his band. LaDonna Gales playing percussion on top of the typical power trio adds a lot. He dips into heavier rock than some more traditionalist blues/rock players, but also has the funk. It’s a great combination.
If you’re not familiar with Eric Gales’ story, it’s worth checking out. I bet he’d write a fascinating autobiography some day. Child prodigy, family band, fell down a dark path, but rose again and came back stronger than ever. His gratitude for making it through life alive and all the first-hand awareness of the dark sides of modern life make for good writing and powerful performances.
So, The Bookends. I’m not big on long-winded album reviews. You can listen yourself, and you don’t need me to go in depth into every track. I’ll talk about a couple of highlights and some other things that stood out.
1. Intro 2. Something’s Gotta Give (feat. B. Slade) 3. Whatcha Gon’ Do 4. It Just Beez That Way 5. How Do I Get You 6. Southpaw Serenade (feat. Doyle Bramhall II) 7. Reaching For A Change 8. Somebody Lied 9. With A Little Help From My Friends (feat. Beth Hart) 10. Resolution 11. Pedal To The Metal (feat. B. Slade) (Bonus Track – Remix)
My top three tracks are bolded above, but let’s talk about all the album highlights. The album kicks off with “Intro” – a bring-down-the-house, ripping-guitar instrumental. This is the kind of thing you’d play to get the crowd hyped up live. In this case, get the listener excited about the record. It sets the tone – a bit heavier than some prior records. “Watcha Gon’ Do” brings a heavy, funky riff to a song about pure lust. It’s hard to not move your body listening to it. The lyrics to “It Just Beez That Way” are poignant and honest, with a touch of humor. The tune is funky as all get out (I dig Eric calling out “that’s funky right there” at about 2:00), and it’s a little more upbeat and positive. “Somebody Lied” is one of the heaviest songs on the album, with lyrics that caught me by surprise. It’s a song I could hear Dug Pinnick doing with KXM or PGP (the “G” stands for Gales in that particular power trio). Heavy and heartfelt. “Resolution” is another instrumental, wide in scope, and to my ears may have been born from his jamming in “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in his live shows.
Of course, throughout the album Eric’s guitar playing is stellar. He also plays bass on “Something’s Gotta Give” and drums on “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Somebody Lied.” MonoNeon plays bass on most of the tracks, with Orlando Thompson on “Southpaw Serenade.” Aaron Haggerty lays down the drums, Dylan Wiggins is on Organ & Rhodes, and Vince Jones provides additional keys on “Somebody Lied.” LaDonna Gales adds backing vocals (which are great, by the way) and additional percussion. Another benefit of physical media, getting to read the liner notes. I had no idea who MonoNeon was, nor that Eric Gales played drums. Good to learn!
The mix is superb, and everything sound fat, warm and clear.
Finally, I want to call out the album artwork, with Eric in a bookstore or library. It’s a really cool visual, and the treatment to the photography gives it a warm, almost surreal look. Kudos to physical media.
I love reading liner notes. For instance, I learned MonoNeon played bass on most tracks, including the funky interlude at 1:50 into “Watcha Gon’ Do” which is probably my favorite bit on the album:
Beth Hart delivers her incredible and powerful vocals to “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Now there’s a package tour I would jump at. The similarity between their life stories make them a great pair. It’s not just knowing what the other has gone through, it’s coming out to a similar place after all that. They’ve done one-off collaborations at various events, but I’d love to see a tour. They’d kill.
I was in Austin last week, and as usual whenever I visit, I spent my Tuesday evening at the Saxon Pub. I usually go to see David Grissom at 6pm and keep it an early night, and he didn’t disappoint. This time though I stuck around to watch Sue Foley‘s set and really dug it. It’s always a treat to get to be blown away by an artist whose name you were familiar with, but whose music you weren’t.
I loved the mix of country blues, featuring lots of Memphis Minnie and Blind Lemmon Jefferson songs. She had a great rhythm and feel for blues, and blended that natural, organic feel with a precision of technique. It wasn’t surgical or sterile, it was perhaps the precision of confidence. She killed it. Her voice is sultry and expressive and sang with an easy authority that delivered the music.
She played a nylon-string acoustic, her drummer played brushes, and the bassist played an acoustic, upright bass. It was a perfect complement to David Grissom’s electric guitar-heavy set.
Being inspired by the set I started digging into her catalog. I particularly like her album “The Ice Queen.”
If you’re a fan of great blues, played with honesty and love, steeped in tradition but played with modern relevance, check out https://suefoley.com/ – you won’t be disappointed.
I got Steve Lukather’s excellent autobiography “The Gospel According to Luke” for Christmas this year and just finished reading. It was quite entertaining, if a bit scattered. There are lots of funny behind-the-scenes stories from his life in the studio and on the road, and lots of crazy adventures with other musicians. One of the best was when Miles Davis showed up and got freaked out by a stuffed dog. I do wish there as a little more meat on the bones in terms of music, but I get that he has such a vast career it would be hard to go in depth with much. His discography – included at the end of the book – is absolutely mind-blowing.
I had never paid much attention to Toto. I knew the hits, but they were alway a softer, more polished band than I was into in the 80s & 90s. Listening with older, wiser ears, and reading about the ups and downs of the band has given me an opportunity to revisit.
In the book he talked about Hydra being their proggy album and that definitely caught my attention so I’ve been listening to that lately.
It’s a nice combination of catchy, poppy hooks, interesting rhythmic devices and songs that go beyond traditional “I love you fare. As expected, the songs are longer and more involved. Of course there’s killer playing all around and as a guitarist it’s cool to hear Luke kill it on every track. What I like about this album is the variety – Hydra, All Us Boys and White Sister absolutely rock. 99 and Mama are a little softer. Hydra and St. George certainly dip into prog territory. It’s tonally diverse and the production is top notch. I’m really digging it. If you overlooked Toto like I had, or only know them from “Rosanna” or “Africa,” give Hydra a shot.
I had a chance to get to Atlantic Sounds this week and picked up their first album on vinyl, and that’s been getting spins, too. What a great band. There are so many bands like this from decades ago that I somehow missed over my last 45 years. Colliseum, Uriah Heep… it’s hard enough to keep up with new bands and new releases but there’s such a gold mine of music from decades past. Regardless, I’m enjoying it and I’m going to be digging deeper into their catalog.