Thursday, December 31, 2015

Lemmy Kilmister - RIP

His vocals sounded like barbed wire soaked in gasoline.  His three-piece band was the loudest in the world.  He was revered throughout the metal community not only for his uncompromising music, but also his brutal honesty, his uncanny wit, and his gregarious nature.  He was a loveable rogue. Lemmy Kilmister died December 28, 2015.  The rock press had several reports of Lemmy's recent health problems.  He had problems with diabetes and he had a pacemaker.  Earlier this year he couldn’t finish a Motörhead show in Austin, and couldn’t play in Salt Lake City or Denver because he couldn’t breathe.  Time, it seemed, had finally caught up with him.  I figured either diabetes or heart disease would get him in the end, but cancer came out of nowhere and took him away from us.  Nobody lives forever, but it was/is still a bit of a surprise to hear of his passing.  By all accounts that I’ve read [including his autobiograhy White Line Fever], Lemmy never feared death.  If he did, he never expressed it.  Once when asked of his greatest achievement, he responded “not dying.” 

Given the substances he ingested, the gallons of Jack Daniels and Coke consumed, the number of women he slept with [the number of which really doesn’t matter], he figured he led a good life and had no complaints and no regrets.  His wish that death would come quickly was granted.  Two days after receiving his death sentence, he didn’t waste any time dying.  He didn’t linger.  He was at home in Hollywood with his favorite video game from the Rainbow Bar & Grill, surrounded by his beloved World War II memorabilia, of which there was plenty.  I’m sure when the time came, he was still wearing his boots.  He said he would never retire, and he was true to his word.  His last show was December 11, only 17 days before the end came.  He had a fascination with all things German, so it is appropriate that his last show was in Berlin. 

Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead were synonymous.  He is truly irreplaceable.  Mikkey Dee said so himself when he announced that Motörhead were finished without Lemmy.  The lineup with Lemmy, Fast Eddie Clarke and Philthy Animal Taylor [who passed away in November] is considered the “classic” Motörhead lineup.  They released five studio albums and one live album in a seven-year stretch [1975-82].  The albums Motörhead, Overkill, Bomber, Ace of Spades, No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, and Iron Fist established the template from which Motörhead seldom veered for forty years.  Lemmy said at the beginning of many a Motörhead show “We are Motörhead, and we play rock and roll!”  The metalheads adored him, and the punks claimed him as a kindred spirit.  In Los Angeles, he was rock royalty.

My first Motörhead albumOrgasmatron [1986].  I bought it on cassette when it was new.  I came to Motörhead later than some, when the band had been in existence for only eleven years.  The only studio albums I don’t own are the self-titled debut album, and March Or Die [1992].

Favorite Motörhead studio albumBastards [1993].  This was Motörhead’s first full album with drummer Mikkey Dee.  The band was in its two-guitar period [Phil Campbell and Würzel], the songs were impressive, and the production was top-notch.  At the time, it was Motörhead’s best-sounding album.  For quite some time, Bastards wasn’t available anywhere except Germany.  I had to get my copy from Amazon.

Favorite live albumNo Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith [1981], of course!  After purchasing practically the entire Motörhead catalog, this one sticks out as a live “best of” from the early period.  It’s a great Motörhead primer for the uninitiated.  However, Everything Louder Than Everyone Else [1999] is pretty damn good.  It’s more intense than No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith, probably because it was recorded in a small venue in Hamburg, and the band was better [Lemmy, Mikkey Dee, and Phil Campbell].  Lemmy preferred Everything Louder Than Everyone Else for those reasons.

Favorite Motörhead song – For most people, it’s Ace of Spades.  For me, it’s Overkill.  The band liked it so much they played it through three times.  Well, it is called Overkill.  Of note, this was the last song from the last Motörhead show in Berlin.  [We Are] the Road Crew is a close second.

Lemmy Bass Tone – Motörhead didn’t have a proper bass player.  Lemmy was a rhythm guitarist whose weapon of choice just happened to be a Rickenbacker bass.  Paul McCartney, Roger Glover, John Entwistle [RIP] and Chris Squire [RIP] used Rickenbackers, but they never sounded the way Lemmy made them sound.  Lemmy was quoted as saying that if Motörhead moved in next door, your lawn would die.  The best description of Motörhead’s sound came from Jarvis Cocker of Pulp -

“It’s the aural equivalent of being in a sandstorm.”

Words – Lemmy had a way with words and could always be counted on for a clever turn of a phrase.  There are too many examples to list, so here’s a sample from On Your Feet or On Your Knees

Shut up, I'm talkin' to you
It's on television so it can't be true
And I can't play that game no more
Wake up and play it through
Kill the many to save the few
I know what the blind man sees
On your feet or on your knees

The rest has already been written about Lemmy and 
Motörhead.  The man is dead, but to paraphrase Jerry Wexler's words at Duane Allman's funeral, the music is imperishable.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tony's Music Picks 2015

I haven’t done one of these for a few years, but this year I thought it was time.  Here are my album picks [of new music] for 2015:
Dwight Yoakam – Second Hand Heart3 Pears was a welcome return to form for Dwight Yoakam in 2012.  Second Hand Heart is equally awesome, and even louder.  Country radio lost interest in Dwight Yoakam a long time ago.  You’re more likely to hear Second Hand Heart on NPR.  That’s country radio’s loss.    He’s not looking for a hit anymore, so he just plays what he wants.  Here he goes back to the cowpunk days of the 1980s when he shared the stage with such roots acts like The Blasters and Los Lobos as well as the punks in X.  DY stays the old-school course he set a long time ago, and the world is a better place for it.  Standout songs:  In Another World, She, Liar, Second Hand Heart.  Play it loud!

Keith Richards – Crosseyed Heart – It’s been 23 years since Keith Richards graced us with a solo album [1992’s superb Main Offender].  When the Rolling Stones record new stuff, you can spot the “Keith songs” immediately.  They’re the ones that don’t try to sound “contemporary” [that’s Mick’s department].  So when Keef decides he wants to put out new stuff, you grab it while it’s available because that’s the old-school stuff that hold its age better.  The Human Riff shows he still knows how to come up with no-frills rock ‘n’ roll.  Keef even goes back past when the Stones were teenagers with a faithful acoustic cover of Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene.  Keef loves reggae, and here he’s included Love Overdue from Gregory Isaacs, and it isn’t bad for a white guy.  Robbed Blind is a country-ish acoustic ballad complete with steel guitar [courtesy of Larry Campbell].  Standout songs:  Heartstopper, Trouble, Amnesia, Blues in the Morning, Substantial Damage.
David Gilmour – Rattle That Lock – Pink Floyd released The Endless River last year and having Rattle That Lock follow so quickly thereafter is a minor miracle.  DG used the usual suspects to make Rattle That Lock that he did to make 2006’s On An Island.  Given that, Rattle That Lock is a bit more upbeat than its predecessor.  The music for the title track was inspired by a jingle DG heard while waiting for a train in France.  But the lyrics are a bit more seriously.  His wife and lyricist Polly Samson drew her inspiration from the second book of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  There’s a waltz with Faces of Stone, a lament from DG about his mother who succumbed to dementia.  When you listen it sounds like something you would hear while dining at a French sidewalk café.  A Boat Lies Waiting is a piano ballad that is an ode to the late Richard Wright.  It’s an old demo DG made that evokes Wright’s Us And Them.  If you listen closely, Wright himself can be heard saying “it’s like going to sea – it’s lovely” [he was an avid sailor].  David Crosby and Graham Nash once again loan their harmonies – their voices and Gilmour’s work brilliantly.  If you want guitar heroics, they can be found on In Any Tongue.

Buddy Guy – Born to Play Guitar – With the passing of BB King, the “King of the Blues” throne is vacant, but the blues does have a new elder statesman in Buddy Guy.  Buddy is the last giant standing.  He’s 79 years old now, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to Born To Play Guitar.  Picking up where they left off with Buddy Guy’s last album the award winning Rhythm and Blues the team of Guy and Tom Hambridge have crafted another marvel of modern blues Usually BG plays with guests who have no business being near the blues, but not so this album.  Hear he hosts the likes of Billy Gibbons, Doyle Bramhall II, Kim Wilson, and Van Morrison.  And as usual, Buddy Guy is an assassin on a Stratocaster.  Jimi Hendrix wanted to be Buddy Guy, and if he was still alive he might be making records like this one.  Buddy Guy once explained that Muddy Waters’ final request to him was “keep the damn blues alive”. He’s still doing just that.
Warren Haynes – Ashes & Dust – Warren Haynes is a great bunch of musical guys.  One Warren Haynes is the leader of Gov’t Mule, a fearless, muscular, take-no-prisoners blues rock outfit.  Another Warren spent 21 years with the Allman Brothers Band, weaving his magic first with the legendary Dickey Betts and then with Derek Trucks, all the while staring down the ghost of Duane Allman.  A third Warren put out a terrific soul/R&B album in 2011 called Man In Motion.  Now we have Warren in another guise, that of a rootsy, acoustic-leaning folky who sings about salt-of-the-Earth blue collar Americans trying to survive.  Warren teams up with newgrass/Americana band Railroad Earth to create Ashes & Dust, which I could best describe as “Appalachian.”  While there are plenty of acoustic instruments on Ashes & Dust [fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, banjo, acoustic guitar], Warren still plays plenty of electric guitar.  There are still enough guitar solos to satisfy the jam band crowd, but here they are more restrained and relaxed, not like the face-melting solos he does with Gov’t Mule. 
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell used to be in the Drive-By Truckers.  He wrote two of my favorite songs from that group – Danko/Manuel and Goddamn Lonely Love.  But he barely remembers his tenure in the band [2001-07].  An alcoholic who had quite the fondness for Jack Daniel’s, his first marriage to Shonna Tucker unraveled.  After his departure from DBT, he made some records that were ok but didn’t set the world on fire.  After his marriage to Amanda Shires, he went to rehab and sobered up [he remains so today], and made the best album of his career, Southeastern.  It was a masterpiece full of tales of loss, forgiveness, newfound sobriety and second chances.  I read somewhere that Southeastern was described as what happens after you’ve hit bottom and you’ve gotten back up off the deck.  With Something More Than Free Isbell turns his focus outward.  He didn’t want to write about himself with this song cycle.  Here he wrote and sings about working class people from his native northern Alabama.  Like his former bandmate Patterson Hood, Isbell is focusing on what adulthood is really like - marriage, jobs, bills, parents, children, belief, doubt, illness, learning and loss.  He’s come a long way from the young twenty-something he was in the Drive-By Truckers – he’s grown up and he’s now got two masterworks under his belt.
Sonny Landreth – Bound By the Blues – I haven’t heard much about Sonny Landreth.  The little bits that I have heard from his musical peers have one theme – Sonny Landreth is probably the best slide guitarist in the business.  Considering that Ry Cooder is still walking this Earth that’s a bold statement.  So after having seen the man himself on the bill of every Eric Clapton Crossroads festival, I finally broke down and bought me some Sonny.  I got Bound By the Blues and loved what I heard, so now I have six albums from Sonny [plus one he recorded with John Hiatt].  I don’t know if he’s the best slide guitarist there is, but he’s a damn fine one.

Steve Earle – Terraplane – Steve Earle has the blues.  He’s had some bluesy songs on past albums, but this time he goes all-in with an entire album of blues.  These aren’t the sad blues the Mississippi Delta, but more of the bar-stomping Texas variety.  Here he pays homage to the likes of Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson [whom Earle name-checks on The Tennessee Kid], SRV, Freddie King and ZZ Top.  In some places he plays solo; in others he goes the full-band route.  The Dukes sound like they were born to play the blues.  Standout songs:  Baby's Just as Mean as Me, the aforementioned The Tennessee Kid, Go-Go Boots Are Back, Better Off Alone.
Los Lobos – Gates of Gold – Los Lobos have been around since 1973.  They have yet to make a bad album.  On previous albums there have been an overarching theme, but on Gates of Gold I can’t find one.  But you expect a few things with each Los Lobos release – smoking guitar playing from David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, lo-fi production, a couple of songs with Spanish vocals, a traditional Mexican song or two.  And so it is with Gates of Gold.  This is more of the same from Los Lobos, and that’s all I want.  Standout songs:  Made to Break Your Heart, Mis-Treater Boogie Blues, Too Small Heart.

Billy Gibbons – Perfectamundo – Billy Gibbons goes to Cuba – without ZZ Top!  The Rev. Willie G was inspired to make this record when he got an invitation to play a festival in Cuba.  He didn’t have any material or a band to play there, so he made this album instead.  It sounds like ZZ Top meets Santana.  It has that sort of Afro-Cuban flavor to it, with timbales, congas, bongos, acoustic piano and Hammond B-3.  One can hear auto tuned vocals in places [BG doesn’t need it, he just messes with it], and there are some rap sections that are best left unheard.  Overall, this album is as good as it is unexpected.  Other than the hip-hop rap shit, my only other complaint about Perfectamundo is that at 39 minutes, it’s too damn short.  Standout songs:  Got Love If You Want It, Pickin’ Up Chicks on Dowling Street, Piedras Negras, Hombre Sin Nombre.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tony's Guitarist Picks - Keith Richards

Keith Richards – he’s the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones.  Because of all the substance abuse to which he’d subjected himself, for years he was at the top of everybody’s list of “rock star most likely to die.”  When he refused to die, then he became the guy most likely survive a nuclear holocaust [him and the cockroaches].  During all that time, he’s got rhythm guitar playing down to an art form.  He’s not in the engine room – he is the engine room.  Bill Wyman once said [and Ron Wood concurred]:  Our band does not follow the drummer; our drummer follows the rhythm guitarist.   All of the blogs I’ve written about guitar players featured lead guitarists, until now.

Rhythm.  He’s not a flashy guitar player, but he does know his limitations.  According to Keef:  “As a guitar player I know what I can do. It doesn't matter about the B.B. Kings, Eric Claptons and Mick Taylors, 'cause they do what they do - but I know they can't do what I do. They can play as many notes under the sun but they just can't hold that rhythm down, BABY. I know what I can do and what I can't. Everything I do is strongly based on rhythm 'cause that's what I'm best at. I've tried being a great guitar player and, like Chuck Berry, I have failed.”  He’s made two contributions to rhythm guitar – one is the use of open tunings to play rhythm instead of just slide.  The other is to blur the line between rhythm and lead. 

Don Was:  “His rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. But in the Stones’ case, Keith is doing what the lead guitar player normally does.” 

Keef likes playing with other guitar players.  He calls what he does with Ron Wood “an ancient form of weaving.”  Keef’s take on guitar playing:  “See, this lead and rhythm thing – there’s no such thing. You play guitar. In a good band, it should swap and shift. You know, licks will come from there and that one will pick up the rhythm. And then you swirl it around, and you don’t have to think lead and rhythm. What we are looking for is to break the barriers down. And that’s why I love playing with Woody.
Best example:  Beast of Burden [Some Girls, 1978]

Open Tunings.  Before 1968, the Rolling Stones were the “bad boy” alternative to the Beatles.  After they strayed from their blues roots they played pop songs just like everyone else, including said Mop Tops.  That changed in 1968, when Keef discovered open tunings.  He thought he had gone as far as he could with the guitar in standard tuning.  Then he discovered the Open E and Open D tunings.  While Ry Cooder worked with the Stones, Keef nicked the Open G from him.  That’s when the Stones started to sound like “the Stones.”  This was something that set them apart from everyone else.  This began the Stones’ Golden Age [Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, & Exile on Main St.], as the list of songs below shows.  You might recognize a few…  Try to play these songs in standard tuning and it just sounds wrong. 

According to Keef -  “The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve got only three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart.  It’s tuned GDGBD.  Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate.  Only three notes, but because of the different octaves, it fills the gap between bass and top notes with sound.  It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring.  I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers.  The notes are there already.  You can leave certain strings wide open.  It’s finding the spaces in between that makes the open tuning work.  And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you’re not playing.” 

As a bonus, chords in open tunings are easy to play, even for knuckle-draggers like me.  Thank you Keef!

Open D
You Got the Silver / Prodigal Son / Stray Cat Blues

Open E
Jumping Jack Flash / Street Fighting Man / Gimme Shelter / You Can’t Always Get What You Want / Salt of the Earth / Jig-Saw Puzzle

Open G
Honky Tonk Women / Hand of Fate / If You Can’t Rock Me / Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ / Brown Sugar / Turd on the Run / Ventilator Blues / Rip This Joint / Casino Boogie / Tumbling Dice / All Down the Line / Soul Survivor / Silver Train / Hey Negrita / Crazy Mama / Before They Make Me Run / Start Me Up / Undercover of the Night / It Must Be Hell / One Hit [To The Body] / Hold On To Your Hat / Sparks Will Fly / Tops / Low Down / It Won’t Take Long / Wicked As It Seems / Love Is Strong / You Got Me Rocking / Doom and Gloom / Sad Sad Sad / Mixed Emotions

The Riff.  Keith Richards has written many, many riffs.  The only person I can think of who has written more memorable riffs is Tony Iommi.  Satisfaction may be Keith’s most memorable riff, [though I think The Last Time is more interesting].  Perhaps not coincidentally, the list of songs in open tunings [above] also presented the best riffs.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash / Street Fighting Man / Honky Tonk Women / Midnight Rambler / Gimme Shelter / Satisfaction / Can’t You Hear Me Knocking / Start Me Up / Bitch / Rocks Off / Tumbling Dice / All Down the Line / Soul Survivor / Dancing with Mr. D / Get Off of My Cloud / Paint It Black / 19th Nervous Breakdown / Ventilator Blues / Hand of Fate / Beast of Burden / Shattered / Dance Little Sister

The acoustic.  The acoustic guitar is everywhere in Keith Richards’ work.  As he wrote in Life:  “I firmly believe if you want to be a guitar player, you better start on acoustic and then graduate to electric. Don’t think you’re going to be Townshend or Hendrix just because you can go wee wee wah wah, and all the electronic tricks of the trade. First you’ve got to know that fucker. And you go to bed with it. If there’s no babe around, you sleep with it. She’s just the right shape.”

It was there in the Stones’ earliest works, like their cover of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away, or the rhythm of Satisfaction or The Last Time.  On some songs it shadows the electric, like on Brown Sugar and One Hit [To The Body].  He could play it quietly, like on I Am Waiting of Play With Fire.  Or he could play it into a tiny cassette recorder and make it sound like an electric, like he did with Jumpin’ Jack Flash or Street Fighting Man.  When the Rolling Stones began their career they played electric Chicago blues.  After their flirtation with trippy psychedelia on Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones went farther back in time to pay homage to the Delta blues that inspired the Chicago bluesmen.  That work is all over Beggars Banquet and continued to a lesser extent through Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers.  In the late-1960s Gram Parson introduced him to country music.  This influence can be heard on Country Honk, Sweet Virginia, Sweet Black Angel, Torn and Frayed, and Dead Flowers.  It’s present in his solo album Talk Is Cheap [You Don’t Move Me and Locked Away] and can be heard all over Voodoo Lounge.  Tony’s favorite KR acoustic song:  Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971].

He wrote the coolest intro in the history of rock n’ roll.   There’s only one song in the entire Stones catalog that fits this description – Gimme Shelter.  In his memoir, Keith Richards recalled he wrote the song on a dark and stormy night while he was at home alone.  His paramour Anita Pallenberg was away filming Performance with Mick Jagger.  Keef just knew something sexually was happening between them - a reflection of his inner turmoil gave birth to this song.

Lead Guitar.  Keef has played his share of leads.  Brian Jones lost interest in guitar in the mid-1960.  That’s why you hear him playing all sorts of other instruments – sitar [Paint It Black, Street Fighting Man], marimba [Under My Thumb], mellotron [all over Their Satanic Majesties Request], recorder [Ruby Tuesday], organ [Let’s Spend the Night Together], dulcimer [I Am Waiting], harpsichord [Lady Jane], etc.  Somebody had to do all the guitar parts, so it was up to Keef to play them all, including the leads.  He played the leads on all of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed.
Tony’s favorite KR lead:  Gimme Shelter [Let It Bleed, 1969].

He got schooled by Chuck Berry.  Keef’s biggest influence was Chuck Berry.  He’s often said that he ripped off every lick that Chuck Berry played.  Keef was the musical director for the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.  The film chronicled two 1986 concerts that celebrated Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday.  In rehearsals it all started as an argument over the volume setting on Chuck’s on-stage amp and how it would sound on film.  Then the band rehearsed Carol – Chuck kept riding Keef hard about getting the intro right. This went on for about five minutes.  He could have hit Chuck, but he just took it for the film [see below].  Keef had the last laugh, though.  Unbeknownst to Chuck, Keef slaved Chuck’s amp to another amp two sub-basements below the stage, and the sound that came out of that amp was what got captured on the film.

The slide.  In the beginning, the Rolling Stones were a blues band, mostly of the electric Chicago variety.  Brian Jones was the blues purist, and he played bottleneck slide [check out Little Red Rooster from The Rolling Stones, Now! - 1965].  When Brian Jones became too debilitated to play guitar because of his nasty habits, that left Keef to pick up the slack.  Sometimes that meant he played the slide.  There were a few songs from Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed where he played slide [see below].  Keef doesn’t play slide much anymore because he doesn’t have to.  Ron Wood [and Mick Taylor before him] covered that well enough. 

Parachute Woman / Jig-Saw Puzzle / Salt of the Earth / Let It Bleed / Midnight Rambler / You Got the Silver / Monkey Man / Ventilator Blues

The bass.  Keith Richards is not a bass player, but he wrote and played the neatest bass line found in classic rock [IMHO anyway…] on Live With Me [Let It Bleed, 1969].  Sometimes he would play the bass because Bill Wyman was either late to the session or didn’t show up at all.  Here are some songs on which the man played the bass:

Jumpin’ Jack Flash / Street Fighting Man / Sympathy for the Devil / Live With Me / Let’s Spend the Night Together / Connection / Heartbreaker / Casino Boogie / Happy / Soul Survivor / 100 Years Ago / Silver Train / Hide Your Love / If You Can’t Rock Me / Crazy Mama / Before They Make Me Run / Some Girls / All About You / Little T&A / Pretty Beat Up / Sleep Tonight / Brand New Car / Suck on the Jugular / Oh No, Not You Again / Infamy

Keith Richards on what is needed to play guitar:  “Five strings, three chords, two hands and one asshole.”