BLAST FROM THE PAST (An occasional look back at older releases worthy of your reconsideration).
ROCK: **** Badfinger -- Straight Up (Apple) originally released on LP December 13, 1971
More often than not an old forgotten album is re-released on CD enabling someone like me to replace my old worn out LP. One of these is Straight Up, Badfinger's third release and one of the best British pop-rock albums of its day. While most of the world has forgotten Badfinger and this album, it has always stayed with me and easily makes my list of the 100 best abums of all time. The album is full of Beatlesque influenced pop and was produced by George Harrison and Todd Rudgren. At times reminiscent of Abbey Road, The Beatles last and best recording, Straight Up was the most critically acclaimed and biggest selling non-Beatle album ever released by Apple Records.
Badfinger is probably best known for recording Paul McCartney's "Come and Get It," released on their first LP on which the band was rightly faulted for sounding like a Beatle's clone. Their second album, No Dice*** (1970), maintained an obvious Beatles influence, but the quartet was now writing their own songs and injected just enough of their own personality and creativity into their music to make people sit up and listen. No longer considered a poor man's Beatles, Badfinger were now being hailed for their own originality. The feeling here is that on No Dice Badfinger sounds more like Squeeze or Crowded House, than the Beatles. The album features the great hit single "No Matter What," the original version of "Without You," which became a huge hit for Harry Nilsson in 1972, and "We're For the Dark," which could have been a big hit if released as a single.
Then came Straight Up. Featuring the big hits "Day After Day" and "Baby Blue" the album provided Badfinger with everything musicians wanted: popularity and critical acclaim. The band combined pleasant melodies, fine musicianship, great singing, and most of all a flair for original composition and arranging that make this one of the best British power pop albums of all time. Other great songs on this album include "Money" (not the Motown cover recorded by the Beatles), "Suitcase," "Sweet Tuesday Morning," "Sometimes," and "Perfection."
Unfortunately everything fell apart shortly afterward, not because of a lack of talent, but by the implosion of Apple and mismanagement of their own business affairs. They continued to make albums, but by 1975 the first of the quartet's two suicides, partially stemming from their business related problems, stopped the group in its tracks. A few years later they regrouped but a second suicide ended the group forever.
Straight Up should be heard by all who enjoy clever mainstream rock and roll with a distinctly English flavor. Although No Dice is also worth hearing, if you only buy one, Straight Up should be your choice.
ROCK: **Matchbox Twenty --Mad Season (Atlantic) Released May 23, 2000
Let's start out buy saying Matchbox Twenty is not my cup of tea, the primary objection being main composer and lead singer Rob Thomas's growling vocals. When Thomas sings at a lower volume his vocals are passable. The problems arise when he tries to sing with feeling, getting more and more gutteral as the volume of his voice rises. Combine his vocal limitations with competent but uninspired songwriting and arrangemants and you have a thoroughly mediocre band with their second thoroughly mediocre album.
While there is nothing inherently bad about Mad Season, their follow-up to their multi-platinum debut, Yourself or Someone Like You, there is nothing on the album except for the hard rocking "Stop," to recommend it either. Mad Season is better than Yourself or Someone Like You because of the addition of horns and strings nicely placed on a few of the tunes. In addition, Thomas's singing has improved. Perhaps he learned from "Smooth," by far his best vocal performance and best song arrangement. "Smooth," written in collaboration with all-star rock guitarist Carlos Santana for his blockbuster Supernatural CD, leads one to believe that Thomas needs a high quality collaborator to bring out the best of his abilities.
There is not enough on Mad Season to recommend it to an adult rock and roll audience. However, if you are a parent reading this review, do not fret. This is a band with a clean image, doing mainstream rock with non-threatening lyrics. Your teen could be listening to far worse. ____________________________________________________
ROCK: ****Larry Kirwan -- Kilroy Was Here (Gadfly Records) released February 27, 2001
I’ve never been a fan of singer–songwriters. You know the genre, music created by folkie minstrels who play guitar while singing their own confessional songs. Most recordings and live performances by these artists feature sparse instrumentation with lyrics that are often far more important than the melodies, harmonies and rhythms that accompany them. I have often wondered why these musicians just don’t become poets.
Now, I’m not saying that lyrics are unimportant. Great lyrics enhance any musical experience. When the music and the lyrics mesh perfectly a song can be a truly moving experience. The most beautiful lyrics can be wasted if the music is not involving.
Larry Kirwan’s Kilroy Was Here, his first solo adult excursion away from New York City’s resident Irish rock band, Black 47, (His children’s disc, Keltic Kids, was his first solo CD) manages to be one of those rare instances when lyrics and music complement each other perfectly. One enhances the other. At no time does the music take a back seat to the wordy songs. This is not an easy feat.
Kirwan is one of the best lyricists in rock. His narrative style is reminiscent of Dylan. But his words are surrounded by musical arrangements that are far superior to almost anything else in the singer–songwriter genre. While Kirwan wants you to notice his profound lyrics he also wants the listener to take in a full musical experience.
Don’t expect this CD to sound like Black 47. No uilleann pipes or Irish folk instruments appear anywhere and while Kirwan and the musicians often get a good beat going, there is no hard rock, reggae or hip hop to be found. Trumpets, acoustic guitars, and strings predominate, with the musicians often giving the songs a jazzy texture such as on the "History of Ireland, Part One." Guest vocalist Suzy Roche adds beautiful vocals to the disc’s opener "Molly." Particularly enjoyable is Black 47 sax man Geoffrey Blythe blowing a perfect solo on a cover of Paul Simon’s "The Only Living Boy in New York." The musicianship is superb throughout.
Despite the lack of an Irish sound to this disc there is no mistaking Kirwan’s Irish roots on many of these tunes. In "Life’s Like That, Isn’t It?" he tells a story of a boy growing up in Catholic Ireland whose life events eventually cause the character to immigrate to America. Is the little boy in this story the author?
On the "History of Ireland" Kirwan simply and chronologically tells us all about the tragic history of his homeland, but the bright, upbeat, playful arrangement seems to tell us that Ireland has maintained her pride and better days are ahead.
Kirwan puts his multi-cultural experience of living in New York to good use on "Fatima," a story of an immigrant Muslim girl who falls in love with an American man. This grieves her father so much he laments that "Why didn’t they tell him back home that things fall apart in America." The song ends with a sad but believable ending that often occurs in a place such as New York where different cultures live and work together but cannot fully understand each other.
My favorite line on the entire disc is from "Spanish Moon" a song that is a commentary about poets trying to co-exist in the Spanish military dictatorship of the late Francisco Franco. Believing in the eternal power of the printed word Kirwan sings, "The poet lives forever, the general dies alone."
These are serious songs from a serious rock musician who can be proud of his work. It is a shame most Americans will never hear a note.
JAZZ: ***Bill Carter & the Presbybop Quartet -- Dancing Day (Presbybop Music) 2000
Can any of you jazz fans out there imagine what it would be like if Dave Brubeck was living a double life, one as a Presbyterian minister and the other as a piano-playing leader of a jazz quartet? The Rev. Bill Carter and his jazz band, named after both of his vocations, answer that musical question. Not only does the Presbybop Quartet sound like Brubeck's classic 1950s group, the famous jazz pianist is a fan of this current aggregation.
The band features Al Hamme on sax, clarinet and flute, Tony Marino on acoustic bass and Tom Whaley on drums. This is not a group of amateurs playing for their own amusement. These groovy cats are serious jazz musicians. Hamme has played with jazz all-stars Clark Terry and Slam Stewart. Marino has played bass for Betty Buckley, famous on Broadway for her starring role in Cats, and Whaley has a national reputation playing with the likes of Mose Allison. Leader Carter, who composed most of the music on this CD, says his first love is swinging with this band. In addition to saving souls the Lord has blessed Carter with the ability to play melodic and rhythmic jazz piano on a par with the best keyboard men of the genre.
While the Brubeck influence is obvious, Carter's original pieces contain enough of his own creativity and imagination to make the music sound fresh. The band really shines on the upbeat numbers. "Dancing Day," "Pass the Plate" and "I Lost My Keys at Kennedy Airport," in which Hamme plays superb jazz flute, all swing and show off the quartet's considerable talents. The stars of the show are Carter and reed player Hamme. Both play enjoyable solos everywhere on the disc but neither musician's solos are so long they become tedious. At the same time we cannot overlook the contributions of the rhythm section which supplies a great backdrop without overpowering the music being played up front.
The only negative is guest vocalist Jacque Tara Washington, who sings in an unmelodic dull monotone on three tracks. Her vocals add nothing to this otherwise fine disc. While God may have given Carter's band the ability to play on a heavenly scale, Washington's vocals deserve no afterlife.
Many of the titles, and all three vocal tracks, have religious overtones and Carter explains the inspiration behind each one in the interesting liner notes that accompany the disc.
The Presbyboppers should be taken seriously. If Dave Brubeck can throw his support behind this group so should we.
ROCK: ***Black 47 -- On Fire (Gadfly Records) October, 2001
Black 47 make great records that suggests they rehearse more than lead singer and composer Larry Kirwan claims they do, but their stage shows continue to have a rowdy, sloppy, improvisational feel to them even when the band plays songs like “Funky Ceili” or “Maria’s Wedding,” both of which they have probably played on stage two thousand times or more.
Black 47 concertgoers are admittedly partisan and eagerly respond to the semi-drunken proceedings in their midst. The band even drinks on stage. They mostly play to small intimate crowds in bars and small clubs that enhance their stage show. The atmosphere at their shows conjures up images of what it must have been like at Liverpool’s Cavern Club to see another of rock’s bad boys, John Lennon, turn on the pre-Beatlemania crowd. So, it is fitting that Black 47 has released On Fire, their second live CD in just two years, (Live in New York City was released in 1999) because non-stop live gigging is how they earned their reputation as the house band for New York City.
The new live CD could be named Live In New York City, Volume 2 as this live material replicates the prior disc’s unrehearsed looseness of the performances, showcases the band’s vibrant, irreverent personality on stage, and gives listeners the same high quality recording by producer Stewart Lehrman who also did the honors for New York City.
Kirwan smartly makes sure none of the songs from the first live disc are repeated on the sixty-plus minutes of On Fire so if you play the discs back to back you will get a real sense of what a full two hour Black 47 stage show is like. On Fire contains music from their latest and best studio disc, Trouble In the Land, offering live renditions of “Those Saints” and “I Got Laid On James Joyce’s Grave.” A nice touch is the first appearance on a full length CD of “Our Lady of the Bronx” which until now only appeared on their long out of print 1992 EP. Excellent renditions of “Czechoslovakia,” “Bobby Sands MP,” and “Fire of Freedom” are highlights. The instrumental, “Johnny Byrne’s Jig,” isn’t quite as successful or exciting as its NYC counterpart, “The Reels,” and the cover of “Biko” which closes this disc isn’t as well played as their cover of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” which closes NYC, but all in all, this CD is another Black 47 joyride. They continue to party hardy through all of their social commentary and political statements and it is nice to know they do not take themselves too seriously while continuing to take their causes seriously.
It should be noted that this is the first CD appearance of Joe Mulvanerty, the uilleann piper who joined the band in early 2000 to replace the departed co-founder Chris Byrne who left amicably to front his own band. I agree with Kirwan who says that Mulvanerty brings a more musical pose to the band. Most of the rap and hip-hop elements that occasionally showed up in their music seem to have left with Byrne.
On Fire was recorded in Manhattan’s Wetlands on St. Patrick’s Day, 2001, three years to the day Live In New York City was recorded at the same venue.
If you have loved these eclectic Irish-American rockers in performance you will like On Fire. When on stage, Kirwan and his friends never disappoint.
JAZZ: **The Midiri Brothers Orchestra -- Finger Bustin’ (Self-Produced) 1999
Roll Over Artie Shaw and tell Woodie Herman the news. Benny Goodman is alive and well, still playing his swing music to adoring fans in the guise of The Midiri Brothers Orchestra.
Joe Midiri, leader of the orchestra along with his brother Paul, is a clarinet virtuoso who can replicate Goodman’s sound to the letter. His playing isn’t just mimicry because his love of the Goodman sound shines through on every note. Fans of 1930’s swing will revel in the joyous instrumental sounds made by this retro-sounding big band.
The band’s style is so close to Goodman’s that one might think these recordings are digitally enhanced Goodman originals. Midiri’s staccato playing on the title cut is breathtaking. The band’s rhythm section always cooks behind his solos & the ensemble playing by the reed and brass sections remains loose but obviously well rehearsed. The instrumentals, all old jazz tunes that pure nostalgia fans probably would not recognize, include pieces recorded with a quartet and quintet. All are wonderful swing tunes and are exquisitely played. Some tracks are exact transcriptions of the original recordings but the pieces still sound original because of their anonymity and because no one else plays this kind of music anymore.
Less exciting are the vocal tracks, most by Paula Johns. Her singing is adequate but not stellar. Her vocal tracks, which include Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “As Time Goes By,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Come Dance With Me,” appear to be acts of pure nostalgia that would please ballroom dancers trying to relive the good old days. True jazz fans may find these songs unfulfilling, especially after hearing the more eclectic jazz on this album. The band does not seem to try nearly as hard on the vocal tracks and most of these tunes have been performed better in the hands of other bands and vocalists. Too campy are the vocals by drummer Jim Lawlor on “Caldonia” and Joe Midiri’s dead on impersonation of Louis Armstrong on “I Want A Girl.”
It is too bad this CD has such a split personality because the instrumental jazz arrangements may be the best old time jazz music I have heard in many, many years.
Finger Bustin’ is a 1999 recording that made me wonder which direction the Midiri Brothers would take on subsequent outings. I received a very happy answer to that question on Live at Bridgewater recorded with a septet in 2001.
JAZZ: ****The Midiri Brothers Septet – Live! at Bridgewater (self-produced) 2001
The Midiri Brothers small jazz groups and big band arguably represent the classic Benny Goodman sound of the 30’s and 40’s better than any other musical organization to ever grace my ears. Joe Midiri is so devoted to Goodman’s music that his groups often play the big band pioneer’s recorded works transcribed note for note rather than interpret the pieces themselves. This may not be to the liking of someone who would rather own an original Van Gogh in lieu of a print of his work, but since the Midiris are the only musical organization around that plays this music their fans are happy, and judging by much of their press, deliriously so.
This live concert CD was recorded at Bridgewater, NJ on January 13, 2001 on the occasion of the Midiris second straight performance at an annual salute to Goodman. The brothers were thrilled to be the first group ever invited back two years in a row. The band performing that night patterned itself after the Goodman Sextet of the years 1939 -1942 which featured Charlie Christian, one of the pioneers of electric guitar.
All eight of the selections were copied note for note off the Goodman originals by Joe Midiri. So how did their performance sound? Just like you would expect Goodman to sound if you saw him play live. The Septet played several Goodman originals including “Six Appeal,” “Breakfast Feud,” “Seven Comes Eleven,” and “Gone With What Draft,” along with old standards such as “On the Alamo,” and “More Than You Know.” The band, which included Joe Midiri on clarinet and sax, and brother Paul on vibes and drums, replicate their idol’s recorded works so well that you really do visualize in your head that Goodman, Christian, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa are really playing these tunes. The band also featured trumpet, acoustic, stand up bass, and guest pianist John Colianni.
Note for note duplication may prevent this CD from being art in the eyes of jazz purists. But these modern day Benny wannabes really play this stuff well. And, for those of us who always wished we could hear this music played on something other than cleaned up 78 RPM records transferred to LPs or CDs we appreciate the Midiris efforts to preserve Goodman’s place in jazz history.
The CD is filled out with four in studio performances that are just as good as the eight live tracks. ________________________________________________
JAZZ: ****Joe Holt Presents the The Midiri Brothers - Avalon (Self-Produced) 1998
Although Avalon is the first of Paul and Joe Midiri’s three CD releases, it is the last one I had the pleasure of hearing, and let’s make no mistake about it: “pleasure” is the operative word for this disc. This CD, as well as most of the music on 1999’s Fingerbustin’ and 2001’s Live! At Bridgewater are probably the jazz world’s most obvious examples by contemporary musicians of what it was like to hear Benny Goodman and his men play.
Using both a sextet & a trio, the brothers play fifteen swing tunes, and just as it does on the Midiri’s two subsequent releases, the Goodman influence predominates. Well played King of Swing standards such as “Avalon,” “Poor Butterfly,” “China Boy,” “Get Happy,” “I’ll Never be the Same,” and one Goodman original, “Slipped Disk” set the tone for this swinging good time.
In addition to music from the King, there is music from the Duke. Two of the three songs featuring singer Paula Johns, “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “I’ve Got It Bad” were highlights of Edward Ellington’s fabulous big band.
Drummer Jim Lawlor takes a vocal turn with “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” which also features Joe blowing some really cool baritone sax.
For even more variety, there are nice original compositions by the brothers and pianist Joe Holt. Holt and the brothers wrote “Joe’s Brother” together. “If Pain Persists” was composed by Joe Midiri, and “A Couple of Joe’s” by Holt. All three pieces are enjoyable. I encourage the brothers to write and record more original works and to broaden their horizons beyond Goodman’s repertoire. Expanding their horizons may prove to be both artistically and financially rewarding because who knows how long they can ride the crest of their idol’s wave.
Every track on Avalon is well played, with the instrumentals, as usual, outshining the vocals. I dare you to find anyone who plays swing era pieces better than Joe and Paul Midiri. If you can find someone that plays swing clarinet as well as Joe that musician would probably be The King of Swing himself!
ROCK: **The Saw Doctors- Live In Galway (Shamtown) 2004
Live In Galway, released in 2004, is The Saw Doctors first live album and their latest to be available in America.
The Doctors are one of the great Irish rock bands, second in popularity in Ireland only to U2, yet they remain virtually unknown in America except to hardcore fans of Celtic music.
Because vintage Saw Doctors music is not easily available stateside you may view Live In Galway as a tempting first purchase, but please do yourself a favor and don't rush out to buy this CD unless you are already a fan of their first two releases If This Is Rock & Roll I Want My Old Job Back and their followup All The Way From Tuam. If you are not familiar with those CDs Live In Galway will be an unfullfilling experience because most of the songs do not have the high quality production of their excellent studio recordings. The melody and lead guitar are washed out of the songs due to the imperfect live mix and therefore the songs all tend to sound the same. When I finally heard their first two CDs I became far more appreciative of this performance from a band who has a great reputation playing on stage.
The album is almost a greatest hits live and contains their two most famous songs, "N17," and "I Useta Love Her" along with several other choice nuggets such as "Red Cortina," "The Green and "Red Of Mayo," and "I'll Be On My Way.
"Bless Me Father" gives the listener a good glimpse of the the Saw Doctors typical humorous irreverence while still acknowledging their obvious Irish-Catholic roots.
Become a fan of the Saw Doctors studio works first. Only then will you appreciate Live In Galway.