Friday, September 23, 2011

Jimi Hendrix - "Band of Gypsys"

"Band of Gypsys" is the only live album supervised by Hendrix before his death. This also may be his finest live recording despite the seemingly endless live recordings released in recent years by the Hendrix family.

In June 1969 The Jimi Hendrix Experience disbanded but Hendrix needed one more album to complete a record contract he had signed years earlier. He recruited Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, and went on to perform four concerts (two each day) at New York's Fillmore East on December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970.

The concerts were a radical change in Hendrix's musical identity. Gone were the psychedelics and guitar burning stage antics. Instead focusing on a more blues/rock feel with definite touches of rhythm and blues. He also chose to play very few to almost none of his previously released songs with sets consisted of completely new material he had been working on.

While Hendrix's three studio albums (I am not counting all the random compilations and supposed new albums released by his family) are essential to any rock or guitar fan, particularly "Electric Ladyland." This, however, is the album (along with its companion album "Live at the Fillmore East") that proves what a killer he was in a live setting. What is amazing is all the guitar virtuosity Hendrix can fit into these relatively short songs. In an era when groups like Cream and Led Zeppelin were making 15 and 20 minute jam songs, Hendrix seems to fit the same amount of guitar virtuosity into a six minute song.

In the past Hendrix, much like a gypsy fortune teller, was always able to conjure up other worldly sound from the guitar, sounds that no one knew a guitar could make until Hendrix showed them it was possible. In this album's centerpiece track, the 13 minute "Machine Gun," he uses his magical guitar to again conjure up unheard guitar sound but this time in a social context. He creates harrowing images of war and a battlefield complete with air raid sirens, gun shots, bombs, and airplanes all through the six strings in his hands. It is an incredibly powerful statement for peace that only Hendrix and his gypsy powers could create.

This live album is actually structured very similarly to his three studio albums, even if the style is very different. Hendrix has picked and edited six of the best songs/performances from the four concerts and as you can hear on "Live at the Fillmore East" he has even edited various performances into one seamless song. In my opinion, now granted I have not heard the recently released Winterland box set, these concerts were Hendrix's finest audio live show. Isle of Wight was plagued with equipment problems, Monterey is really a visual performance as opposed to an audio one, Woodstock is pretty good but his back up seems lost and he seems nervous. At Fillmore East he is in command, his band is ready and willing, the equipment is working, he has a great batch of new songs, and he simply owns the stage. It is amazing the things he did with an electric guitar and even more amazing that he was only a recording artist for about four years before his untimely death less than a year after this album's recording. True genius.
Tune in next time for my review of "Live at the Fillmore East"!

Friday, September 16, 2011

George Harrison - "All Things Must Pass"

If I were to ask which of the four Beatles had the first number one single and biggest selling first solo album? Most people would probably guess John Lennon or Paul McCartney but they would be wrong. It is the quiet Beatle George Harrison with his landmark debut solo album "All Things Must Pass." The first triple disc record ever released (now on two CDs) made it even more astonishing because it was slightly more expensive than a regular length albums.

As the Beatles essentially disbanded at the start of 1970 Harrison joined forces with record producer Phil Spector and gathered a who's who of musicians. Largely gathered from Delaney and Bonnie's group the musicians included Eric Clapton and the soon to be Derek and the Dominos (Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon), Dave Mason. As well as Billy Preston, the band Badfinger, bass master Klaus Voorman, and drummer Jim Keltner. There are also brief appearances by Ginger Baker and an unknown Phil Collins.

Harrison had been writing a massive amount of songs during the last few years of the 1960s. However, Lennon/McCartney were so prolific that they only allowed Harrison two songs on every Beatle album. He thus built up a large backlog of written songs that had to be recorded the majority of them became "All Things Must Pass."

Harrison never had a strong or distinctive singing voice but it serves its purpose here and thanks to Spector's wall of sound production Harrison's voice sounds very good and fits into the mix perfectly. Harrison's songs are also very strong and prove that he was a writer in the same league with Lennon and McCartney. Harrison was always interested in spirituality, particularly the religions of India, thus this album focuses on themes and ideas of Spirituality. The music is so melodic and pop/rock oriented that the songs never cease to be accessible, despite sometimes having philosophical, religious, or spiritual content. He also for the most part is not direct about the spiritual connotations of the songs. Only "My Sweet Lord" and "Hear Me Lord" blatantly call up higher powers. The rest of the songs could just as easily be about the love of a woman, the state of the world, and the state of life itself.

Sure the album is long but for the most part everything is a keeper, I personally may have removed "I Dig Love," "Let it Down" and "Apple Scruffs" but even those are pretty entertaining. The real flaw is the Original Apple Jam that ends the album (originally the third disc of the Vinyl Record). The Jam consists of five instrumentals (two are ten minutes) in which Harrison and Derek and The Dominos along with certain guests for each track basically just, well, jam. I think I know why Harrison included them; he was never really allowed to jam with The Beatles. Beatles music was a very expertly structured and arranged entity and they never allowed Harrison to really break out and jam on the guitar. So these sessions are a way for him to let out all his pent up guitar fury that had been built up during The Beatles.

The problem I find with the Apple Jam is that they are not all that interesting simply because there is too much going on at once. The 60s and 70s groups that jammed the best often were very small; like Cream Clapton was the main focus, Hendrix, CSNY focused largely on Stills and Young during their live jams. Harrison, however, often has seven or more people playing on the jams. Perhaps in a nod to Delaney and Bonnie's large band and Spector's wall of sound the music is very encompassing and thus makes it hard for any particular element to stand out, because there is so much going on at once. So often the jams are kind of boring and repetitive and are probably hardly listened to by many owners of this album.

None the less the 2001 remastered set makes everything at least listenable. The remastering makes all the difference. I remember I borrowed the original late 80s early 90s CD version of this album from my friend and I thought the album was awful. But when I heard all the glowing reviews of the 2001 remaster I decided to pick up the album and the thing sounds spectacular. Amazing what remastered sound can do; turning what I thought was awful into a great album. There is a wonderful booklet inside as well as one new song bonus track (that should have been on the original album), some alternate takes and a new version of "My Sweet Lord." The 2001 remaster is a great addition to any Beatle fan's music library.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bruce Springsteen - "The Rising" September 11 2001

To honor the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 I am breaking my usual alphabetical postings to write a post about that harrowing day in America's history.

I remember waking up ten years ago to the sound of my radio alarm. Yet the normal classic rock that played to stir me from my sleep was a news report that morning. I groggily looked up at my alarm clock and wondered why a rock station was playing a news program and also why were they talking about New York City? I eventually got the facts that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by two airplanes. I rose from under the sheets and turned on the TV to find every station with the same images of the smoking towers. Living in Hawaii the attacks had happened many hours before it was morning where I lived. I was a Junior in High School and the day before was the birthday of this girl I had a crush on; I had spent much of the weekend looking for a gift for her. All that seemed very trivial a day later. I had never been to New York City, or the east coast for that matter, all I knew of the Big Apple or the World Trade Center was what I read in books or saw in Movies and TV. I was not sure how to feel as I did not know anyone who live in that part of the country and I felt so far removed. All I felt was sadness for all the people and the black cloud that covered that city of dreams known as New York.

In the following weeks the newspapers and TV screens were filled with information, specials, and fundraisers in support of the victims of 9/11. I along with the rest of the country was filled with a new found patriotism. Being a teenager and coming from the most isolated state in the union I never really felt the pull to say I am American. Never really thought about being American, I just thought of it as the country I lived in. Yet I suddenly found myself with a true identity of being an American. I watched the nearly eight hour "Concert for New York City" on television and wished I could be there.

As always in history music became the only place many people could find comfort and explanation whether it be the "Concert for New York City" or the music telethons "America, A Tribute to Heroes" and the like. While the concerts were definitely life affirming and tear jerking, in this confusing and troubling time none of the Music really captured the America of Post 9/11; neither did the music written especially for the tragic events such as Paul McCartney's "Freedom" or Neil Young's album "Let's Roll." Then ten months after 9/11 Bruce Springsteen released "The Rising."

More than any other modern musician Bruce Springsteen is identified with the American Landscape and so it is only fitting that the only true American musical poet be the only one to accurately and excellently capture Post 9/11 America.

In his first studio album with his excellent E Street Band since 1984's "Born in the USA." They reunited in 1999 after Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So it is only fitting that this is a return to form for The Boss after his poor albums of the 1990s. He is backed by a full band and he is writing American anthems again as only he can. The album is focused and direct yet it expertly captures the cloudy and uncertain feeling of America after 9/11. Even the artwork is cloudy and dark with only blurry images of the band members as if we are looking though all that dust at Ground Zero.

Bruce brings all his considerable Rock and Roll knowledge and his personal history with songs that could have fit on such landmark 70s albums as "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Nebraska." The songs are obviously dark and inspired by a very dark day in history, yet in the end there is hope and the overall message that there is a greatness in everyday life. Some of the songs are truly great and excellent additions to Springsteen's vast catalogue including, "Lonesome Day," "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," "Mary's Place," "My City of Ruins" and particularly the title track. When the songs are not great they certainly are pretty good. He takes all different views, from a fireman who feels he's just doing his job on "Into the Fire" and"Nothing Man," to seeing things with non American eyes "World's Apart," "Paradise" and "The Fuse." To everyday people who have lost friends/family "You're Missing" and "Empty Sky." In the end the album closes with "My City of Ruins" where the people can only pray to whatever they believe in for the strength and the faith to rise up. The final words we hear on the album are Springsteen and a choir chanting "Come on and Rise Up." A call to all of America that we heeded. Thank you Bruce for helping us find the Rising. Thank you Bruce from the confused teenager that found some focus in your songs.

So on this tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 may we remember those who fell. May we remember the patriotism for this truly great country called the USA. May we remember that it does mean something to be American. May we not loose sight of the wonderful life we live. May we "Come on up for the Rising, Come on up Lay your Hands in Mine, Come on up for the Rising Tonight."

Friday, September 9, 2011

"The 50 Greatest Hawai'i Albums of All Time"

Every year Honolulu Magazine devotes on of their twelve issues to the music of Hawaii with a large cover story about a specific artist or music style or period. In June 2004, after the success of Rolling Stone Magazine's 500 Greatest Albums in 2003, Honolulu Magazine ranked the 50 Greatest Hawaii Albums of all time.

The original issue was such a success that the Magazine released a hard cover coffee table book, through Watermark Publishing, in late 2004. The book gave expanded reviews and interviews for each of the 50 albums and also included lots of glossy pictures. The following year they also had an hour long TV special chronicling the albums.

To coincide with the book the Mountain Apple Record Company released this 17 track compilation which picks one song from 17 different albums featured on the list.

The compilation is simple and satisfactory, like most music compilations, the one thing that makes this one falter though is that it is supposed to represent ALBUMS not simply songs. The 50 albums on the list worked as complete works where the individual songs are excellent but work together to make a cohesive whole. Picking one song from each album does not really give any insight into the album it simply says here is an awesome song. Do not get me wrong the songs on this compilation are excellent but they are just one part or the great albums that they came from. Also none of the out of print music that is featured on the 50 Greatest list is on this CD so all these songs can be acquired separately in their original album context. Overall this compilation focuses on the Renaissance and 1990s music and largely Hawaiian language tracks. All excellent songs I might reiterate.

This works like many various artist compilations it is a sampler and also a cash in on the book. So if you are unsure if you want to check out any of the albums on the list you can hear a song from them first. This was given to me as a present along with the book I cannot remember what the occasion was though. I really love the book this CD I just hang on to as a keepsake. In 2006 Mountain Apple released an 11 track sequel compilation. Honolulu Magazine has also released issues ranking the "50 Greatest Hawaii Songs" and in 2010 an issue chronicling "100 Years of Hawaiian Music."

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hapa - "Maui"

So after the back to basics album "Namahana" the original HAPA Barry Flanagan and Keli'i Kaneali'i parted ways in 2000. Flanagan eventually recruited former Don Ho bassist and known solo performer Nathan Aweau to create the "new" HAPA. They began appearing live and touring in late 2003 and would eventually release the excellent album "Maui" in 2005.

This is easily HAPA's best work since their first two albums and the best Hawaiian music album of the first decade of the 2000s.

The album is a loose concept album involving not only the island of Maui on songs like "Haleakala" and "I Ka La'i O Lahaina" and its history "Paniolo 'Ona Slack-Key" referencing the Hawaiian Cowboys of the island. But also referencing the Hawaiian demigod Maui, "Papa E" and Hawaii's connection to Tahiti "Tahiti Manahune." This album is a comment on modern polynesia employing styles and sounds from Tahiti, New Zealand, and Hawaii along with Western music ideals. All the ideas and messages are interestingly centered around a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." This version starts as the simple acoustic ballad that Marley had originally written but eventually soars into an anthem with the guitars and English lyrics counter pointed by a powerful Hawaiian chant.

This incarnation of HAPA is to me equal or better than the original duo because now there are two songwriters. In the original HAPA Flanagan was in complete control. Here the songwriting is spread between Flanagan and Aweau giving the listener two voices to hear. Aweau is also an accomplished Bassist (which he shows on the song "Twinkletoes") and guitarist so now the group can compose for bass and guitar instead of just two guitars. The "new" HAPA's musical canvas is also much broader aside from the Tahitian and Maori (New Zealand) sounds, Aweau (a jazzman at heart) adds jazz stylings and even blues into the mix. "Paniolo 'Ona Slack-Key" even brings in the old west style cowboy tunings reminding the listener of sitting out on the range.

The packaging is also landmark, in this era when CDs are getting skimpier and skimpier, many Hawaiian musicians simply throw a cover photo and track list onto a cardboard flap and put the album on the shelf. This album is extraordinarily thought out in its presentation. There is a detailed booklet with liner notes written by Aweau and Flanagan explaining each of the songs. There is also gorgeous paintings by Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos depicting the demigod Maui  as well as ideas of Polynesia. A fully realized masterwork of an album, truly excellent. (NOTE: in the more recent printings of the album I believe the packaging has been sadly cut down to save money)

Flanagan has been claiming for the past four years to be working on a follow up album focusing on the concepts of Hula, but nothing has come forward to say the album will complete in the near future. In 2010 it seems Aweau and Flanagan have disbanded and a new ukulele playing partner has joined Flanagan as another "new" HAPA